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Theater review: 'The Trip to Bountiful' at South Coast Repertory

October 31, 2011 | 12:27 pm

A Trip to Bountiful
If there's any such thing as a bulletproof play, “The Trip to Bountiful” may be it.  Horton Foote's elegiac study in the diminution of old age, which featured Oscar-winner Geraldine Page in the 1985 film, is a sure-fire crowd pleaser -– given the right director, actors and designers, of course.

It's also a somewhat safe choice for an innovative theater to include on its main stage schedule.  But although they don't get many points for daring programming, the producers at South Coast Repertory, who include incoming Artistic Director Marc Masterson and founders David Emmes and Martin Benson, the last of whom also directs, deserve high praise for assembling a team that burnishes Foote's masterwork to a mellow glow.

Under an overlay of gentle humor, Foote's play concerns crushing loss and the heroism of ordinary people coping with unbearable disappointment. Carrie Watts (splendid Lynn Milgrim), an elderly farm woman living with her single surviving son, Ludie (Daniel Reichert, also very fine), maintains her near-saintly sweetness despite constant petty hectoring by Ludie's wife, Jessie Mae (comically heart-breaking Jennifer Lyon). 

Unable to have children, Jessie Mae has fixated on Mother Watts as the scapegoat for her own dissatisfaction. Confined to a two-room apartment in 1953 Houston, the two women get along about as well as two cats in a sack, while the deceptively stoical Ludie, just recovering from a long and serious illness, suffers the domestic discord with pained resignation.

Suffocated by her constrained circumstances, Carrie longs to return to her family farm in the tiny whistle-stop of Bountiful.  The bulk of the action centers on Carrie's desperate flight to return home, get her hands dirty, and work the soil once again.

The irony here is that Carrie, who suffers a dangerous heart condition, soon will return to that self-same earth she longs for.  That's just one shadow over her journey, which entails a long litany of losses, all of which Carrie weathers with untrammeled valor and optimism.

Thomas Buderwitz's versatile sets span the gamut from a claustrophobic city apartment to an abandoned farmhouse that could have been lifted out of an Andrew Wyeth painting. From urban blare to country chirping,  Cricket S. Myers' sound is essential to the ambience. Donna and Tom Ruzika's painterly lighting is nothing short of virtuosic, some of the best stage lighting to be seen in this or any theatrical season. The excellent cast includes Lily Holleman, Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr. -– all wonderful.

Those familiar with the film will find Benson's direction a revelation. Never slipping into easy sentimentality or regional stereotypes, Benson's staging balances the leisurely with the dynamic and sets the scene for credible redemption. It's an opportunity to experience Foote, that great theatrical humanist, at his peak.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“The Trip to Bountiful,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 20.  $20-$68.  (714) 708-5555.  Running time:  2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Lynn Milgrim, left, Daniel Reichert and  Jennifer Lyon in "The Trip to Bountiful" at South Coast Repertory.  Credit:  Henry DiRocco.