Carrie Watts, a feisty widow, takes matters into her own hands by embarking on a bittersweet journey to her past in Horton Foote’s tender, touching drama “The Trip to Bountiful,” set in 1953 Texas and admirably presented by the Dayton Theatre Guild through Sunday, May 1.
Before Carrie (Gayle Smith) ventures on her titular excursion to her childhood home, which is the absolute heart and soul of the play, Foote humorously reminds us why on earth she’d want to take such a leap of faith. It seems as if she’s simply had enough of being a bother, a sheer inconvenience, to her dutiful son Ludie (Ray Geiger) and persnickety daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Amy Askins) inside their cramped Houston apartment. Although she provides Ludie and Jessie Mae with a portion of her monthly government check, Carrie realizes her life and what she can contribute is worth so much more than a dollar amount. She can’t even sing her favorite hymn, “No Not One,” without Jessie Mae scolding her. So, with great conviction and determination, she boldly bolts from the apartment, her prison of conflict and confinement, to find some semblance of peace and happiness in her beloved Bountiful, a small town 12 miles from Harrison. Situations don’t go according to plan, but there is a feeling of contentment within Carrie’s spirit nonetheless as she comes to terms with an emotional tug-of-war derived from battling memory and reality.
The delightfully folksy Smith lovingly conveys Carrie’s endearing resilience, particularly as others attempt to set her back. In Smith’s capable hands, particularly in Act 2’s dramatic passages, it’s easy to understand why Carrie longed to break free and make a change if only to restore her dignity and purpose. The effectively understated Geiger delicately uncovers Ludie’s relatable agitations and disappointments, specifically his concerns about job security and not having fathered a child. A terrifically overbearing Amy Askins ensures Jessie Mae’s insensitivity doesn’t dissipate, but she also paints a vivid portrait of a cooped up housewife longing for more (particularly time with her husband and friends) who needs to flee just as much as Carrie. In addition, Angela Dermer charmingly portrays the kind if underwritten Thelma, a military wife who befriends Carrie. Scott Madden (Sheriff) and Ryan Shannon (Roy/Harrison Ticket Man) aid in authenticity.
Director Craig Smith doesn’t guide the slow-going, off-kilter Act 1 with enough flavorful interplay between Smith, Geiger and Askins, but his vision for Act 2 establishes stronger connections, specifically his staging of the poignant final scene. His commendable artistic team includes scenic designer Del Johnston, lighting designer Scott Wright, costumer Carol Finley, and sound designer K.L. Storer.
In the play’s haunting, heartbreaking final moments, Carrie stands in front of her Bountiful home with immense fondness and pride. What she views as a sight of magnificent glory would appear to the average person as nothing more than a symbol of deterioration, dilapidation and neglect. But if beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, I proudly side with Carrie.
“The Trip to Bountiful” continues today at 5 p.m. and tomorrow at 3 p.m. at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Both acts run roughly 55 minutes. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $13 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org.