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Theater Review: The Trip to Bountiful

PC: Jack Grace
Lina Krueger’s production of “The Trip to Bountiful” begins with a depiction of family dysfunction, as the elderly Mother Watts (played by Sharyn Stone) is sharply at odds with her daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (played by Gabby Anderman). While Mother Watts quietly absorbs Jessie Mae’s daily barrage of faintly disguised insults and condescending retorts, she also plans a much-needed escape. Standing as a sort of referee between the women is Mother Watts’ devoted son, Ludie (played by Frank Hayes), who is a devoted son and a warm husband but fails to prevent Jessie Mae from lashing out. The three live in the same apartment, an arrangement that seems to exist solely because Jessie Mae relies on Mother Watt’s pension checks.  Caro Walker’s set design creates a sense of separation, as Jessie Mae and Ludie discuss their disdain, while Mother Watts sits quietly, still but visibly antsy, plotting her moment to run away.

Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” is a wish-fulfillment drama of an elderly woman’s desire to flee her unsteady living accommodations and see her childhood home one last time. The play is broken up into character vignettes that allow every actor to shine and the unpredictable story to find a steady rhythm.

Despite a long list of great performances, this is the first play Krueger has helmed. Her directorial debut  exudes great control of mood and tone, as the transitions from gentle humor to heartbreak feel genuine. Like any great director, she encourages and enables her actors to give fully formed performances and doesn’t obscure the character-driven story with dollops of obtrusive theatricality. Walker’s set (with its cool rear-projection backdrops), Kristi Scott’s costumes and Richard Vetterli’s sound aide Krueger’s vision and create the feel of a lost era.

To give the actors a consistent compliment, they all find the core of truth in their parts. Stone’s fine performance carries the show and allows for some heartbreaking moments. Mother Watts is written as a dotty and lovable figure, which Stone certainly conveys, but Watts’ aching sense of longing is the central drive of the character, which Stone powerfully captures.

Playing Ludie, Hayes is effective in his portrait of a man both henpecked and struggling to gain a sense of control in his life. Anderman is excellent as Jessie Mae, pulling back from the temptation to shape the role as a monster. Instead, Anderman’s performance stops short of easy villainy and offers a clever interpretation: Jessie Mae is bored with her life but clings to every ounce of control within her reach.

Frances Tau’a plays a sheriff whose compassion for Mother Watts takes the story to its emotionally resonant conclusion. Tau’a is a secret weapon in any play he appears in and gives the Sheriff a lived-in weariness. Kathryn Holtkamp is wonderful as Thelma, the tender hearted passenger who befriends Mother Watts and Ally Shore is great as a transportation employee who becomes involved with Mother Watts’ journey.

Krueger has shaped something very special, as the compassion and tender heart of Foote’s work comes across in every scene. An extended scene, in which a late night bus ride unveils the story of an unrequited love, is as masterful as anything I’ve ever seen at the ProArts Theater.

The Trip to Bountiful plays January 26th-February 11th at the ProArts Theater at the Azeka Marketplace in Kihei. Tickets are available at 808-463-6550 or www.proartsmaui.com.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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