Carrie Watts (Susannah Berryman) resides with her only living relatives — her kind but troubled son Ludie (Jesse Bush) and her self-absorbed daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Sarah K. Chalmers) — in a cramped three-room apartment in Houston.
She constantly wishes to return home to the small, near-dead town of Bountiful before her heart condition ends her life. After a long night with a full moon and no sleep, she runs away early in the morning. As she travels, breathing problems from her heart pains intertwine with flashbacks of Ludie as a young boy.
Berryman, associate professor of theater arts at Ithaca College, gracefully shows the continual conflict of hope and regret within this friendly woman. Her paced but excited speech, constantly reactive body language and emotional rawness bring this captivating character to life. Her energetic performance is both honest and haunting, making the audience fear that point when one feels they have outlived their life.
While Berryman and Bush do not spend a great amount of time together onstage, their mother-son relationship is this play’s outstanding centerpiece.
Bush plays a grown man still hurting from childhood who wants “to stop remembering, because it doesn’t do anything to remember.” He holds his body tightly, depicting Ludie’s struggle with his world. His physicality makes him seem closed off from the world, but strength emerges from his body when the role requires it. This measured performance, always balancing between dismay and optimism, is spot-on for the character. Bush performs as a character the complete opposite of his tenure last spring in “Red Light Winter” at the Kitchen Theatre, and his acting range is remarkable.
The rest of the ensemble is equally talented, but three stand out. Chalmers succeeds as the unlikable Jessie Mae, and her sharp comedic timing intersects with the character’s ridiculous personality, making her the show’s essential comic relief. Sarah Charles, a senior musical theater major at the college, charms with polished, reserved acting in the small but essential role of Thelma, a young wife traveling alongside Carrie. R.M. Fury’s short but brilliant performance as the Texan sheriff does not satirize Texan sheriffs, but rather shows the kindness found within roughness, all the while with a great gait, calmly striding across the stage with legs out, fingers in belt loops and chest back.
The set by Brian Prather, former professor of theater arts at the college, is intriguing and nostalgic. Five ceiling-to-floor wooden poles remain onstage throughout, while run crew moves furniture for the varying scenes on and off the stage. Kara Harmon’s costuming develops each character while establishing 1953 Texas in a charming and classy manner.
Lighting by Driscoll Otto creates the mood of every scene. His lighting fixtures are wonderfully evocative. However, in a scene between Carrie and Thelma on the bus, several lights fade to reflect the passage of time and merely slow the action down. Sound designer Colleen Toole’s beautiful countryside music neatly wraps up the show. The final tearjerker scene is beautifully designed. Bright lighting coupled with a serene backdrop opens up the stage, where pieces of an old house hang in mid-air, surrounded by the sounds of birds and other bits of nature.
While not as exciting in story or theatricality as past productions, this well-told Southern tale can intensely immerse anyone. Carrie’s touching journey in “The Trip to Bountiful” is one every theatergoer should travel.