Carlsbad, CA---Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson is a force to be reckoned with.
Over the past thirty or so years she has been ‘A Woman of Some Importance’ in our theatre community. From her days at the Southeast Educational Complex in the early 80’s where she performed in Athol Fugard’s “Boesman and Lena” to her powerful presence as “Othello” at the now defunct San Diego Women’s Rep. in Rolando to her award winning nomination for her performance as the matriarch of The Younger Family in “Raisin in the Sun” last year at Moxie Theatre she has been a living dynamo.
In a magical performance at the New Village Arts rendering of Horton Foot’s “The Trip To Bountiful” she still can knock your socks off with her magnetic force. As Carry Watts, in Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful”, Thompson is again the matriarch of the family but she is out of her element in a stuffy apartment in Houston that she shares with her son and daughter-in- law. She wants to go home to Bountiful.
Carrie’s needs and wants are ignored by her family but the government check she gets every month is not. It gets more attention than Carrie can stand especially from her one and only adversary, her and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Yolanda Franklin). Her milquetoast son Ludie (Walter Murray) plays the game to bring peace in the family but at the expense of his and his mother’s dignity.
The fact that he barely ekes out a living, that the fifteen year marriage is running on empty and that they cannot have children of their own, a situation that brings out the bitterness in Jessie Mae and saddens Ludie even more, add more thorns in Jessie Mae’s side. Being impatient and nasty to Carrie is another way of showing her annoyance.
Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” was originally a 1953 teleplay before being adapted to the stage. It starred Lillian Gish with Eileen Heckart and a young Eva Marie Saint making occasional appearances. It is most remembered by the 1985 film starring Geraldine Page (for which she won an Oscar) and it did make it to Broadway for a short run staring Gish before that.
Horton Foote wrote more than 60 plays and films and won an Academy Award in 1962 for his adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” into a screenplay. In 1956 he won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for “The Young Man from Atlanta”. Foote’s ordinary, home grown characters doing ordinary every day things are a reflection of his own lifestyle growing up in the small town of Wharton, Texas.
Carrie Watts is one of those simple everyday but emotionally stifled women (remember this is in the early 50’s) who keeps everything bottled up and takes life, her losses and her loneliness as it is handed to her.
She never married her childhood sweetheart in Bountiful, because her father felt him too argumentative. He picked one that never argued back. She stayed in the home of her parents and lived in a loveless marriage (her husband died young) and buried her first two babies there.
Carrie worked their 350 acre farm until it could give back no longer. She finally took her one surviving son, Ludie and moved to the larger city of Huston where we catch up with her and her son and daughter in law, Jessie Mae.
There is one thing on her To-Do list that she wants acknowledged by her son and daughter in law and that is her longing to go back to her roots and see Bountiful before she dies. She is convinced she will wither and die of loneliness and unfulfilled dreams in Houston if she can’t see Bountiful one more time. Ludie thinks the trip is too much for her weakened heart condition and Jessie Mae is just annoyed in general at everything she does including humming her favorite hymns.
Carrie Watts is like most of us who dream of our glorious childhood days and never consider what twenty years can do to a worn out and poverty stricken town. In her mind’s eye it will look and be the same. So she plots of ways to go back home, fantasizes about life there and the possibility of living with one of her best friends (whom she hears from once a year). She aches to set her feet in the soil in which she once loved to till and plant.
So like the ‘Little Engine That Could’, on this particular day all the stars are lined up right for Carrie. She manages to hide the check well enough from Jessie Mae, make it to the Greyhound Bus Station and slip aboard a bus heading toward Bountiful before Ludie and Jessie Mae can catch up with her.
Along the way she meets a lovely young woman, Thelma (Alexis Louise Young is just right as the sympathetic listener) who befriends her and watches over her until they have to part ways. She tells Carrie that her new husband is in the Army and she is on her way home to live with her parents again. Carrie shares with her new friend what her now life is like and of her memories living in Bountiful and that she too, is going home.
When she finally arrives escorted by the sheriff (David Macy-Beckwith), and walks the land and sees with her own eyes what she left behind even though it is a dilapidated, ramshackle of a house, (Janell Cannon) she cries with joy at the feeling of being home. She also learns that her friend has just died and the land is fallow, and yet she shines. You can see the weight of the world lifted as she walks around her run down property, but all is now right with Carrie.
By the time Ludie and Jessie Mae catch up with her, Carrie has had a chance to regain some of the confidence she lost when she left so many years ago.
It is here that she and Ludie manage a singular memory that satisfies both; that of her waking him from his sleep when he was a little boy to marvel at the moon. In past telling of the story, Ludie denied remembering. It is back in Bountiful that they finally come together as mother and son.
Finally, during their short absence Ludie and Jessie Mae must have had some small epiphany and both decide to change their ways toward Carrie if she, in turn, promises never to run away again.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to see this play locally with one of our premiere actors, the late Katherine Faulconer, who played Carrie Watts. I fell in love with the play then and was not disappointed in this current production.
Horton Foote’s small town Texas upbringing and understanding of the people there is reflected in Kristainne Kurner’s carefully crafted direction as the play unfolds in real time but no can deny that this play belongs to Ms. Thompson. Her every emotion is seen on her face, heard in her voice and felt to the bone.
Both Ms. Franklin and Murray play off each other well, neither being that likeable at first but with Murray’s Ludie so passive and low keyed and Ms. Franklin so over the top, (especially on opening night) the balancing act between tthe two seemed off kilter at times.The rest of the small ensemble is fine with Brendon Christopher, Elijah Howlett, Macy- Beckwith and John Tessmer filling in as passengers, ticketing agents and moving the overly bulky set during the two long intermissions. Chris Renda's lighting, Bill Bradberry's original music (I did detect "Morning Has Broken") and Mary Larson's costume design all contribute to the overall success.
It’s worth a trip to Carlsbad to be with Carrie Watts and M’Lafi Thompson as they make their way to Bountiful in this heartbreaking but beautiful show.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through March 3rd
Organization: New Village Arts
Production Type: Drama
Where: 2787 State Street, Carlsbad, CA 92008
Ticket Prices: $22.00-$36.00