Review: The Trip to Bountiful by Austin Playhouse
by Michael Meigs

This is a memory play, an exercise in yearning -- not only for the principal character Carrie Watts, but also for playwright Horton Foote and for the audience.  Where are they, those vanished earlier times, and what were they really like?  Depending entirely on her son and her daughter-in-law in their apartment somewhere in the Houston of 1953, Carrie Watts longs to return to her home, a house somewhere in rural Texas at a crossroads with the melancholy, ironic name of "Bountiful."



Mary Agen Cox, Amy Kay Raymond, Brian Coughlin (image: Christopher Loveless)The place still exists, as we learn while following Carrie's great escape, but as she inevitably discovers, there's no longer much of "home" about it, other than the sagging structure of the homestead. 



Christopher Loveless's images make the point powerfully.   In the publicity photo Carrie and her bags sit before a light-filled rural road -- as out-of-place and as photo-shopped as a 19th century portrait taken before a painted backdrop.  In performance all that light and liberty disappears, for director Toner situates these actors in the dark confines of a black box, provided with minimal props and simple furnishings.  The concept is so stark and featureless that the Playhouse lists no credit for stage design.


The story is intimately tied to the simple humanity of the characters and the authenticity of the voices given to them by the cast.  The accents, rhythms and the perceptive costuming by Buffy Manners situate them in that specific moment in urbanizing Texas as director Toner and the cast deliver Foote's simple, powerful parable.



Amy Kay Raymond, Mary Agen Cox (image: Christopher Loveless)

Carrie is not a complex personality.  She shows little sense of self-pity, but we learn in the course of the evening that throughout her life others have made life's decisions for her -- an overbearing father, the second-choice, second-rate husband whom she didn't love, and now her quiet, stressed son Ludie -- but even more, her annoyed and self-certain daughter-in-law Jessie Mae, who requires the immediate hand-over of Carrie's monthly pension check.  In a world that is claustrophobic and dark for her, Carrie has already tried to flee and take the train toward Bountiful.  Jessie Mae dismisses Carrie's efforts as "spells" and scolds both Carrie and Ludie for them.



Through the trope of Carrie's fugue toward Bountiful Foote provides in unhurried fashion a full biography of this unremarkable yet appealing woman.  The central conflict is between Mary Agen Cox as Carrie and Amy Kay Raymond as the daughter-in-law Jessie Mae, for whom Raymond created as a personality as shallow and amusing as Shelly Duvall's Olive Oyl in Robert Altman's film Popeye.   Cox holds the older woman Carrie's emotions carefully in check, betraying only through pauses and occasionally pressed lips the bitterness of the gall she swallows on behalf of her son Ludie.  The duel persists throughout the action.  Carrie's eventual arrival at Bountiful is both victory and defeat, a reconciliation and reaffirmation.  Her graciousness at that moment of mixed emotion prompts an unexpected but thoroughly satisfying moment of victory over the comic, horrible Jessie Mae.



Tom Parker, Rachel Dendy (image: Christopher Loveless) 

Rachel Dendy as Thelma, the girl whom Carrie meets on the bus, is a sweet, sensitively drawn foil to the older woman and Scotty Roberts as the abashed but dutiful sheriff is a necessary plot conveyance.  In a trio of tiny roles as different bus station agents, Tom Parker provides a quick, sparkling revelation of the art of acting, unostentatiously stamping each of those wiry rural authorities with a different voice, attitude and physique.  


I had a particular interest in The Trip to Bountiful, for Horton Foote and Don Toner may be in part responsible for our relocation to Austin (have I already told you this story?).  While traveling through Texas in the mid-1990's, on the way from our assignment abroad to take my daughter to a camp in the Hill Country, I took her to see Foote's The Young Man from Atlanta at the State Theatre -- back when it was still operating and Don Toner was directing there.  We came away with the notion that Austin was, indeed, a city that could provide more in arts entertainment than twangy guitars and boot-scooting. 


It's nice to see that what goes around, comes around.


Review by Patrick Dixon at, November 20

Review by Cate Blouke for the Statesman's Austin360 "Seeing Things" blog, December 1

Review by Olin Meadows for, December 3

Review by Robert Faires for the Austiin Chronicle, December 9

Review by webmaster, TheatreAustin, Yahoo groups, December 9




Click to view the program from The Trip to Bountiful by Austin Playhouse.


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The Trip to Bountiful
by Horton Foote
Austin Playhouse

November 19 - December 18, 2010
Austin Playhouse
6001 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78752