I was so bored during the first act of The Trip to Bountiful that I had trouble staying in my seat — and this despite a powerful performance from Kathleen M. Brady as Carrie Watts, the elderly woman trapped in a Houston apartment with her son, Ludie, and his disagreeable wife, Jessie Mae. Of course, I was supposed to be uncomfortable. Jessie Mae is an empty-headed shrew who bullies her mother-in-law, Ludie is an empty cipher, and Carrie — who spends the entire act longing to return to Bountiful, her home town on the Gulf — is an irritating old soul who fidgets, argues, sings hymns incessantly and moves around at an aimless little run.
Eventually, Carrie breaks free, clutching her already packed suitcase, her pension check (which Jessie Mae has been nagging her about relentlessly because it's needed to cover expenses) tucked against her breast. At the bus station, she encounters another young wife, Thelma, who is sweet and empathetic. She responds with tears to Carrie's recitation of a psalm; she listens intently as Carrie tells the story of the one real love of her life, a man she was forbidden by her father to marry.
Kathleen M. Brady fills Carrie with emotion in The Trip to Bountiful.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 25, the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
But in act two, Carrie encounters the station master and the sheriff of the town closest to Bountiful, which no longer exists — and everything changes. When Randy Moore and John Hutton appeared, I felt as if I'd been given a cool drink of water on a stifling day. These two actors are so centered and comfortable in their skins, the currents moving between them and Brady so rich and very interesting. And when Carrie, having finally arrived at her decrepit old home, talks about redbirds and mockingbirds, the play's quiet music asserts itself.
Later, I realized my initial problems with the production stemmed from some of the casting. Most of the Texas accents sound slippy and uncomfortable, like badly fitting clothes. Jessie Mae has got to be one of the world's most irritating fictive creations, but awful people can still be fascinating to watch. Sara Kathryn Bakker's grating voice and troubling physical mannerisms may fit the role, but her performance is external and conveys no hint of humanity. I found myself gritting my teeth. Julie Jesneck's interpretation of Thelma is also thin and twitchy rather than soul-deep. It doesn't help that this intimate show is presented in the round, so that you lose immediacy and detail throughout the play.
The ending can be seen either as a complete defeat or an affirmation that family, no matter how troubling, is all we've got — and, as Auden once noted, "We must love one another or die." But Brady makes it much more complex. Her Carrie is filled with a deep, quiet joy, radiant with it. Like the giant Antaeus, who needed to touch the ground periodically to maintain his strength, she has smelled the earth of her home and is now fortified not only for family strife, but for the ultimate darkness to come.