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‘Trip to Bountiful’ at Ford’s Theatre is a journey too far back in time

The Washington Post 10/3/2022 Celia Wren
From left: Kimberly Gilbert, Joe Mallon and Nancy Robinette in the Ford’s Theatre production of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” (Scott Suchman) From left: Kimberly Gilbert, Joe Mallon and Nancy Robinette in the Ford’s Theatre production of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” (Scott Suchman)

Like a pair of fraying white gloves retrieved from the attic, there is a dated feel to “The Trip to Bountiful” at Ford’s Theatre. Taking a mannerly and unquestioning approach to Horton Foote’s well-worn 1953 work, with a hint of costume-drama deliberateness, director Michael Wilson’s production seems happy to operate by an old-fashioned playbook.

That is not to say that Foote’s script itself lacks up-to-the-moment themes. Family tensions, intimations of mortality, the melancholy of lost opportunity, these are realities in every era. And you certainly feel for the character chiefly buffeted by them: the elderly Mrs. Carrie Watts (Nancy Robinette).

A director takes a return ‘Trip to Bountiful’ at Ford’s Theatre

Trapped in 1950s Houston in the small apartment she shares with her mild-mannered son, Ludie (Joe Mallon), and bullying, hymn-phobic daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Kimberly Gilbert), Carrie longs to return to Bountiful, her small hometown. So one morning, defying her son, she sneaks off to the bus station, the first stop in a journey that will confront her with shattering disappointments and inspiring human kindness.

The diligent acting in this heartstring-tugging story — alongside Tim Mackabee’s detailed apartment set and the stagey-looking tufts of grass that evoke rural Texas — falls in line with a safe, predictable theatrical style.

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Yet Robinette, a beloved Washington actress, is an appealing Carrie, by turns despondent, spunky and — as when she sits quietly in a bathrobe, waiting out the full moon that gives her insomnia — stoic. In the most moving scene, on the bus, Carrie talks with the sweet, sad Thelma (a winningly understated Emily Kester).

Carrie’s face lights up when she imagines sinking her hands into the soil of Bountiful. Her expression crumples in an instant, into shame and pain, as she confesses an incriminating secret. (Lighting designer Rui Rita and sound designer John Gromada add richness to environments throughout, and do a particularly wonderful job with the bus ride.)

From left: Marty Lodge, Nancy Robinette and Emily Kester in the Ford’s Theatre production of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” (Scott Suchman) From left: Marty Lodge, Nancy Robinette and Emily Kester in the Ford’s Theatre production of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.” (Scott Suchman)

Elsewhere in the cast, Mallon suggests Ludie’s conflicted depths, and Marty Lodge is an imposing Sheriff. Jessie Mae is written more or less as a shrewish cartoon, and although Gilbert conveys some poignant disappointment and girlishness, her valiant efforts can’t make the character fully dimensional (though Jessie Mae, like all the characters, looks smashing in the 1950s styles from costume designer Ivania Stack).

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Pleasant touches notwithstanding, director Wilson, a leading Foote interpreter who has directed “Bountiful” many times, including on Broadway with Cicely Tyson, does not instill in this production a sufficient sense that the play is urgent now. (Ford’s had scheduled “Bountiful” for its pandemic-derailed 2020-2021 season, but that is no excuse.) Moreover, the motif of nostalgia for a bygone, less urban America, at least as showcased by characters who look like the ones here, reverberates uneasily in 2022.

Hats off to Ford’s for more exciting offerings coming up, including a festival of plays-in-development by BIPOC playwrights and “Shout Sister Shout!,” a musical about Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In the meantime, “Bountiful” is a trip back to a tired vintage mode.

The Trip to Bountiful, by Horton Foote. Directed by Michael Wilson. Original music, John Gromada. With Michael Glenn, Christopher Bloch and others. Two hours. $24 to $54. Through Oct. 16 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. fords.org.

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