Being there 

The Trip to Bountiful rules the road

There’s something about road trips. Whether it’s just a Saturday drive up to Salmon Lake or an epic, however-long-it-takes cross-country trek, miles of paved road seem to always deliver the necessary clarity, perspective or camaraderie that wanderlusters seek. The saying is that it’s the journey, not the destination, that makes these sorts of trips worthwhile, but in the case of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, it’s all about the destination.

Bountiful isn’t just a small Texas town in Foote’s classic drama; the place becomes a character all its own. It represents home, family, history, idealism, prosperity and hope, all despite the fact it’s a dying patch of farmland along the Gulf Coast, no longer worthy of its own bus stop. Bountiful means something, and what it has become matters little compared to everything it’s always been.

The Montana Repertory Theatre’s current production of The Trip to Bountiful is a slow burn—a character study that simmers onstage through three carefully crafted acts. The story never elicits more than the briefest chuckle or slightest gasp, but it builds and builds and builds in the experienced hands of director Greg Johnson to an emotional conclusion that’s neither surprising nor heavy-handed, just satisfyingly full.

Carrie Watts is a spry old woman with a bad ticker stuck in urban hell, otherwise known as Houston. It’s 1953, and Carrie lives with her well-intentioned but run-down son, Ludie, and his prissy, high-maintenance wife, Jessie Mae, in a three-bedroom apartment. We’re introduced to the trio in the middle of the night, with Carrie rocking in a chair by the window lamenting the downtown traffic, and Ludie joining her because, once again, he can’t sleep. The two talk of Bountiful and remember certain good times—she working the dirt, he playing baseball—before Jessie Mae whips into the room with a rush of reality. In the midnight chatter it’s revealed that money’s tight, that mama’s memory and heart aren’t so great anymore, that the two women of the house are at each other’s last nerve, and that Ludie is just trying his best to keep everyone happy. In traditional southern parlance, even the contentious comments between the three are made with plenty of “yes, ma’ams” and “no, ma’ams,” softening some of the frustration that clearly resides just below the surface.

The biggest problem in the house is that Carrie keeps flying the coop trying to get back to Bountiful. These frequent escapes wouldn’t be a problem except that Ludie’s concerned about her health and Jessie Mae’s worried about keeping tabs on Carrie’s pension checks, which help supplement Ludie’s new office wage. (The latest check, which was supposed to have arrived a few days prior to the action, has yet to be cashed.) Jessie Mae is suspicious, but ultimately too preoccupied with herself to fully discover her mother-in-law’s latest plan. The next day, left alone, Carrie swiftly packs her bag, slips her pension check in her bra and makes a run for it. The rest of the play is a slow-motion chase—Ludie after his mom, Jessie Mae after the money and the golden girl after one last taste of her hometown.

Since Bountiful is one of the Rep’s touring productions—scheduled for performances in 34 different destinations after debuting in Missoula—the principal roles are played by members of the Actor’s Equity Association, and the professionalism is telltale. Suzy Hunt, a veteran of Broadway and familiar to Rep audiences for her 1997 role in To Kill a Mockingbird, stands out as the lonely and steadfast Carrie. She convincingly delivers her character’s two sides, oscillating from the lighthearted and absentminded eccentric that Jessie Mae sees her as—prancing from room to room as she cleans, cooks and dallies—to the proud, weatherworn Texas widow she actually is: “I used to work the ground like a man,” she says solidly on her way to Bountiful. Hunt’s performance is entirely accessible, making her journey easy to root for, painful to watch and the emotional touchstone of the play.

Local playwright and performer Barret O’Brien (Ludie) is the lone Missoulian cast in a leading role, and he and Heather Benton (Jessie Mae) complement Hunt well. Foote’s script develops each of the characters thoroughly, but both O’Brien and Benton add subtle physical touches—O’Brien, exhausted, placing his hand to his cheek, or Benton’s constantly crossed arms and stomping walk—to impress Ludie and Jessie Mae even more on the audience. The supporting roles—most notably UM senior Kristen Springer as Thelma, the young wife who rides alongside Carrie on the bus from Houston—are also strong.

And then there’s Bountiful itself. The play has an inherent sense of place, and through Carrie’s memories Bountiful starts to form as a clear portrait in the audience’s mind. There’s a nearby river, cotton and corn crops, loyal neighbors and more memories than anything else. Even as the reality of the town’s demise becomes more and more clear as Carrie travels closer, her unwavering need to get there, to touch the soil again, and to see home once more—damn the peripherals—makes the place just as relevant and layered as any character in the play.

Carrie’s journey is telling, but it’s being there, not getting there, that clearly matters most. Bountiful’s production values, its measured pace, and the patient spilling and collecting of storylines throughout, makes this performance resonate long after the curtain falls. It’s not unlike a genuine road trip—one that takes you somewhere remote without your ever fully realizing just how far you’ve actually traveled.

The Montana Repertory Theatre presents The Trip to Bountiful in the Montana Theatre on the UM campus through Saturday, Jan. 28. Evening performances begin at 7:30 PM, and Sat. matinee at 2 PM. $12–15. Call 243-4581.

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