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'The Trip to Bountiful' Is a Reminder of Why We Go to the Theater

This television version directed by Michael Wilson is lacking in the same of urgency that made the Broadway show such a sensation.

The Trip to Bountiful

Director: Michael Wilson
Cast: Cicely Tyson, Blair Underwood, Keke Palmer, Vanessa Williams
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: NR
US DVD release date: 2014-08-05

The 2013 Broadway season brought with it one of the most joyful surprises the New York stage had seen in recent years: watching then-88-year-old Cicely Tyson play Carrie Watts in a new adaptation of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. The part of the stubborn, but heartwarming Miss Watts had already been played by the likes of Lillian Gish, Lois Smith, and, perhaps most famously, onscreen by Geraldine Page, who won the 1985 Best Actress Academy Award, her only win. This makes it true, if somewhat cynical, to assert that it’s a part that will bring critical acclaim to any actress who takes on it. Tyson went on to sweep all the Best Actress in a Play awards during that season, leading to a touching acceptance speech at the Tony Awards where she became the oldest actress to win the award (and any award at the Tonys for that matter).

Still, knowing that the part is such awards bait, didn’t make it any less wondrous to see her perform onstage with the energy and vitality of someone six decades younger. Watching Ms. Tyson at the Stephen Sondheim Theater felt like a treat, not only because of the undeniable novelty of the event but also because it encompassed what made theater such an important art form: the fact that not a single performance is ever the same as the one the night before. Tyson would add new flourishes and details to her already multilayered performance each night, and talking about her with people who’d seen the show on different occasions, you’d get the sense that this was one of those rare performances you wish you could see on every night it played.

Sadly, none of this excitement or energy was transmitted to the television version, which plays out more like an exploitative continuation of the Broadway event, than as a movie itself. The Trip to Bountiful is essentially the story of how Miss Watts longs to see the town where she was born before she dies. It has all the makings of a simple fable and yet, in her forbidden journey from her son’s home to Bountiful, Foote’s play reveals layers of such touching humanity, that it often feels as if the entire world is contained in its wise words.

One of the many problems of the play is that depending on the supporting cast, the character of Miss Watts can come off as looking ungrateful or slightly insane. When we first meet her, she’s sitting in her rocking chair in the middle of the night, and then gets up to warm some milk for her overbearing, yet undeniably meek, son Ludie (Blair Underwood). His wife Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams) asks them both to go to bed, as it’s late and the next day is a working day. The camera shows us Carrie who is in the kitchen warming the milk for her adult son. We see that she dislikes Jessie Mae, but what this version always fails to show us is why exactly. As played by the extraordinary Williams, Jessie Mae is a woman who loves her husband and is miserable whenever he is. It’s understandable that she will want to keep her mother in law safe and sound, and stop her from running away, considering that she’s old and frail.

Carrie’s animosity towards her daughter in law in this version feels unearned, more like the makings of an irrational, jealous mother, than anything holding any actual truth behind it. However, you can’t root against Carrie, so when she finally escapes and buys a bus ticket to Bountiful, you somehow can’t help but want her to get her way. On the road she meets many characters, through which we learn about the kind of life she’s led and the tone of the piece often suggests that she won’t make it to her final destination.

This television version directed by Michael Wilson is lacking in the same of urgency that made the Broadway show such a sensation. It exists merely as a device to preserve Tyson’s performance for the ages, which leads us to wonder why didn’t they instead just tape one of her performances. While her turn in the TV version is serviceable, it’s quite unremarkable, other than for the fact that she’s infinitely better than anyone acting next to her (even Williams is slightly off key here).

In a time when media is becoming the almighty god one must bow to, this Lifetime version of The Trip to Bountiful feels appropriate to remind people to go to the theater, to go seek why shows keep being turned into films and TV miniseries. The Trip to Bountiful, as it is here, isn’t always worth the ride.

This DVD version of The Trip to Bountiful is presented in a good transfer that highlights the quality of the production values. There are no special features included.


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