Homeward Bound

Small, gentle story offers extraordinary, rewarding experience

The Trip to Bountiful

Signature Theatre Company

Peter Norton Space

555 W. 42nd St.

Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun. 3 p.m.

Through Feb 19

$55; 212-352-3101

There are times in life when simply being understood can relieve—though it cannot wholly eliminate—a great deal of suffering. Real compassion is so intensely life-affirming that one wonders why we don’t see more of it in our world. Instead, we see self-serving and posturing masquerading as humanity and wonder why it rings so false. As the cliché goes, “actions speak louder than words,” and in the final analysis it is what we do that trumps any hollow cant.

This is just one of the themes that radiate warmly through the lyrical and satisfying production of “The Trip to Bountiful” mounted by the Signature Theater Company. Set against the backdrop of Houston in 1953, Horton Foote’s play is a story of a world in transition in the years just after World War II when increased mobility and a changing economy shifted the notion of family and familial duty forever.

Ludie and Jessie Mae live in a three-room apartment where tensions run high because Ludie’s mother, Carrie, lives with them. Carrie’s pension check makes an important contribution to the household as Ludie tries to rebuild his career after a long illness. Yet Jessie Mae resents Carrie’s intrusion on her life and treats her harshly. The tension is palpable as Ludie is caught between the two women. Carrie is not insensitive to this and wants to return to her hometown, Bountiful, which she left two decades previously. Jessie Mae merely thinks Carrie is crazy and repeatedly foils Carrie’s getaway attempts, all the while resenting being a caretaker and complaining about her own suffering.

Carrie is no fool. She sees the tension her presence creates, and at the same time longs more than anything to get back the control of her own life. And so, one afternoon when Jessie Mae is gossiping at the soda fountain, Carrie hides her pension check, makes a break for it, and gets on a bus headed, she thinks, home. It is on the bus that she meets Thelma, a young war bride, and though Thelma does little more than listen, she does so with kindness and a connection that emboldens Carrie to find the courage to carry through the long and daunting journey.

Bountiful, however, is transformed, all but obliterated by the decline of farming and the rise of the suburbs and the changing economy. Yet each of these challenges, Carrie takes in stride, refitting her desire to each new revelation to the point where all she needs to do is see Bountiful one more time to be happy. When reality sets in and Carrie is, inevitably, headed back to Houston with Ludie and Jessie Mae, it is she who learns to be compassionate. She has reclaimed her life.

Like much American literature, the importance of one’s place of origin figures prominently in the characters and the storytelling, as does displacement in creating a sense of unease. Ludie and Carrie have Bountiful in them, and that fact alone separates them from Jessie Mae, who as a lifelong city dweller doesn’t share that. Ludie may have tried to suppress his roots, but he cannot, and Foote’s play eerily foreshadows today’s world in which a lack of community breeds defensive self-interest that corrodes the culture as a whole and leads to isolation and selfishness.

The cast is superb. Lois Smith gives a magnificently etched portrait of Carrie. Her portrayal is full of subtext and longing. We see her transform before our eyes from a frightened creature to a warm and loving woman as she meets Thelma and heads for Bountiful. Her entire physicality changes as she gets herself back, and though Carrie will never be young again, the validation she receives lifts the burden of patronizing and dismissal that she has had to live with. Smith finds every moment with absolute commitment.

Devon Abner as Ludie delivers a world of contradictions in a beautiful, simple and understated performance. Caught between the two women in his life, we feel the tension in him. It is not just Carrie who benefits from Bountiful. Ludie finds a healing he didn’t anticipate and the strength to take greater command of the many demands put on him. Hallie Foote is delightfully loathsome as Jessie Mae. The part is written relatively simply, but Foote makes it real with tics and looks and an aggressive angularity that convey not merely a lack of understanding but an inability to relate—and a refusal to budge.

Meghan Andrews as Thelma is a perfect counterpoint to the abrasive Jessie Mae, right down to her gentle smile and white gloves, in a lovely, brief performance. The character is a plot device, but Andrews imbues her with a sense of time and place that makes her real and multidimensional.

Harris Yulin has directed with a keen appreciation for the interpersonal dynamics and an awareness of period that is refreshingly understated. He has made this small and gentle story an extraordinary and rewarding experience that allows one to revel in the characters and the narrative and that is quietly, deeply moving.