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Nashville Scene Traveling Home

ACT I takes a "Trip to Bountiful"

By Lisa A. DuBois

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Horton Foote's play The Trip to Bountiful opens with its central character, Carrie Watts, sitting in her son's tiny three-room apartment in Houston, staring at the full moon and listening as cars skid and crash along the highway outside. For the past 15 years, Mrs. Watts has spent nearly every evening this same way. Suffocating from the city's relentless pace and pressures, stricken with constant anxiety and a weakened heart, the 60-year-old woman resolves to return one last time to her hometown, a run-down, boarded-up spot near the Texas coast--a place, ironically, named Bountiful.

"When she decides to return to Bountiful, she knows that only three families were still there when she moved away," explains Marianne Clark, who portrays Mrs. Watts in ACT I's production of The Trip to Bountiful, opening Friday at Darkhorse Theater. "She knows she's going back to what she left, which wasn't much. But she doesn't think about going back to poverty. She's not going back to the house or the people--she's going back to the land. This story is about hope, renewal, and home."

Director Sean O'Connell has wanted to direct Bountiful for some time. The show was first presented on NBC's Television Playhouse in 1953 before moving to Broadway's Henry Miller Theater, where its cast featured Lillian Gish, Gene Lyons, Jo Van Fleet, and Eva Marie Saint. A 1985 film version starred Geraldine Page. O'Connell is struck by the play's central statement about cherishing, rather than discarding, one's past. "The script is so simple, yet it holds all the basic truths about love, family, growing old, and saying goodbye," she says.

Over the seasons, ACT I has gained a reputation among community-theater followers for offering significant artistic works that challenge actors and audiences alike. In addition to Clark, O'Connell has cast Danny Proctor as Mrs. Watts' son Ludie, Cinda McCain as Ludie's wife Jessie Mae, Jack E. Chambers as the Sheriff, Krys Collins as Thelma, and Bob Young, Lee Stevens and Leonard Willimson as the Ticket Men. For the past year, says producer Bob O'Connell, each ACT I show has had at least one sold-out performance, and in several cases, such as Durang, Durang and The Member of the Wedding, the company was able to sell every seat for every show.

Like Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding, Foote's play is also propelled by complex characters searching for an identity, a sense of self. Years before, Bountiful had been a boomtown where good, honest folk were able to ignore the mosquitoes, grow their gardens, and make a decent living. After the town fell on hard times, however, people began boarding up their homes and stores and moving away. Thinking life would improve, Mrs. Watts finally sold her property and, with her only surviving child in tow, moved to the city, where Ludie could get a better education and a job. For all her noble intentions, though, the decision forced her to become a totally different person--a person she has grown to despise.

As the play unfolds, the Watts household is racked by petty bickering and chronic complaints. Ludie is hamstrung by a low-paying dead-end job, and Mrs. Watts and Jessie Mae are trapped in a cycle of arguments over pension checks and personal quirks. Jessie Mae lives in a dream world of Coca-Colas, glamour magazines, and movies. Mrs. Watts dwells in memories of the backbreaking but productive life she has forsaken. Although they're all drowning in boredom, only Mrs. Watts has the courage to take a risk and effect a change. At last, she sneaks out of the apartment, hides out in the bus station, and secretly returns to Bountiful.

"Carrie doesn't expect life [to be easy], but she wants a sense of being in the right place, and for the past 15 years she hasn't been in the right place," says Bob O'Connell. "It's essential to her that she has a 'home'--that she knows where home is and that it will always be there. Carrie understands the beat of life and that she's part of that same beat of life."

The beat of life is not necessarily beautiful or easy or forgiving. Yet its rhythm resonates with anyone who is warmed by the memory of a childhood home--whether it's a scorched, sun-baked town in the desert, a remote spot in the Upper Midwest where the snow collects in 10-foot drifts, a patch of unyielding red clay in the South, or a lonely stand of backwoods set high in the mountains. Despite finding her birthplace in an even more ramshackle condition than she expected, Mrs. Watts draws solace from the smell of the Gulf, the flight of a scissor-tail, and the feel of the dirt.

"We're all part of this," she tells Ludie as she surveys the land she loves. "We left it, but we can never lose what it has given us."

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