At ACT, a tale of unstated hopes and disappointments

'The Trip to Bountiful' and its story of yearning are more than 50 years old, but its powerful themes are still relevant in a more complicated age.
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Marianne Owen as Carrie Watts, Mary Kae Irvin as Jessie Mae Watts, and Paul Morgan Stetler as Ludie Watts in 'The Trip to Bountiful' at ACT.

'The Trip to Bountiful' and its story of yearning are more than 50 years old, but its powerful themes are still relevant in a more complicated age.

Horton Foote, who died last year, created more than 60 plays and screenplays; The Trip to Bountiful is one of his best-known. He wrote it in 1953 as a play for television, and that airing was followed by a short Broadway run. In 1985 a film version won an Academy nomination for Foote and an Oscar for Geraldine Page. Victor Pappas has directed an excellent revival of the stage play at ACT, showing tomorrow (June 2) through Sunday (June 6).

Pappas puts the elaborate machinery over and under ACT'ꀙs arena stage to active but discreet use, with fluid set changes. The staging is simple, complementing the clean lines of Foote'ꀙs tale.

Pappas has pulled good performances from a strong cast; the women are particularly fine, keeping at bay both bathos and frivolity. Many actors don'ꀙt find the courage to frankly portray their characters'ꀙ unsympathetic or unlikable traits. Marianne Owen as Carrie and Mary Kay Irvin as Jessie Mae both do so unstintingly. Jessie Mae is often played with too little edge, but Irvin embodies — without winking or exaggeration — every mother'ꀙs nightmare of a live-in daughter-in-law.

Carrie, the lead role, can be played too grandly; Owen portrays her as bustling, dowdy, chatty. She is well supported by the charming Jessica Martin and Wesley Rice. Charles Leggett as a small-town sheriff isn'ꀙt pitch-perfect, but the ruminative pace of his speech and movement are spot on.

Neither fanciful nor fancy, Foote'ꀙs work is more beloved than respected. Frank Rich, longtime theater reviewer for The New York Times, had something of a Horton Foote fetish, but not all critics have shared that enthusiasm; their praise is often tempered with words like 'ꀜcareful,'ꀝ 'ꀜrealistic,'ꀝ and 'ꀜquiet.'ꀝ

Foote'ꀙs wistfulness for the small towns of Texas can seem at first retrogressive to modern urban audiences and the artists who serve them. August Wilson'ꀙs snapshots of African-American history seem better crafted for regional theaters newly aspiring to diversity in programming, while other playwrights cloak their rustic characters in grim despair, surrealist menace or grisly violence. Foote is a simple writer for a complicated age.

Many Southern writers have operated in the gray zone between shallow sentiment and psychological complexity, between pulp and snoot. Faulkner, Williams, Welty, McCullers all have their bad days. Maybe the Texas wind sweeps away the gothic taint of the Southeast, since Foote appears more easily to strip down his plays to fundamental relationships and emotions, concerning himself with good and bad rather than good and evil. This makes his best work powerfully affecting: Unstated hopes and disappointments underlie The Trip to Bountiful'ꀙs core tale of an old woman'ꀙs solastalgia, and ACT'ꀙs production creates a fine arena in which to watch them at play.

If you go: The Trip to Bountiful, through Sunday (June 6), ACT, 700 Union St., Seattle, 206-292-7676. Tickets cost $40-$55 and are available online.


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