Review: A heartfelt ‘Trip to Bountiful’

I would tell you that the best reason to go see the late Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” is the extraordinary performance of Carla Belver, but then, there is the play itself.

Foote, a singular chronicler of life in America and especially in Texas, wrote the play for television in 1953, then for Broadway later that year, and eventually for the screen, and what he says about our tug of war between connecting to the past and letting it go will always be relevant.

In an unusual coincidence, “The Trip to Bountiful” opened over the weekend at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern and will dovetail with a revival of “The Trip to Bountiful” on Broadway. Often, rights to a play are either frozen or revoked when a Broadway revival comes calling, but the native Philadelphian Stephen Boyd, whose company is producing the Broadway revival with African American leading actors, apparently had no problems with the plans of People’s Light.

It’s a good thing, too, because audiences are treated to a production that honors the quiet, compelling play in every possible way. The production is a polished gem, from Alexis Distler’s handsome, no-nonsense apartment house and bus station sets to Marla J. Jurglanis’ carefully designed costumes that conjure the late ’40s, when the play is set, and from the fluid staging by artistic director Abigail Adams to the sincere portrayals by the cast.

The story of an elderly woman who feels thoroughly trapped in a three-room Houston apartment she shares unhappily with her son and his wife is not about dementia, although her forgetfulness makes it seem as though it could be. But this woman, with a heart condition, is not about to go wandering around aimless and confused — she wants to slip out of the vise her children have created for her own protection and go somewhere specific: the rural town of Bountiful, where she was reared, married and became a mother.

It’s been decades since she’s seen the place, and there may be nothing man-made that’s left of it, just the sweeping country land and a river. But in a life that’s become more like a living death, a reconnection could at least bring her a sense of peace.

Carla Belver, a native Texan like the woman she plays, has made her acting career here on several stages — none more frequently than People’s Light, where she’s been a steady member of the ensemble. Her portrayal of the old woman, Mama Watts, inhabits that character with a passion for her roots and, in the end, a reconciliation with the present — the hardest part of Foote’s script to accept, but not in this production, in which Mama Watts’ late-play grasp on life seems as natural as the chirping birds of rural Texas (Christopher Colucci’s sound design).

Belver is equally believable in her Houston muddle as she is in her insistence that she break free of it. It’s a joy to watch her build and expand the character, supported by William Zielinski as her grown son, Teri Lamm as his resentful wife, Julianna Zinkel as a woman Mama Watts befriends, and Tom Bryn as a sheriff caught up in the old woman’s plans. As in so much of Foote’s work, the characters these actors solidly portray speak volumes about the ever-changing meaning of being a modern American, in an America that seems to change even faster.

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL runs through April 7 at People’s Light and Theatre Company, 37 Conestoga Rd, Malvern. Tickets: $25-$45. www.peopleslight.org or 610-644-3500.

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