I would never, ever reveal an actress’ age, except this once. I think it’s a cause for celebration that Betty Scott Smith is starring in Village Players’ latest production, The Trip to Bountiful, at age 85. This remarkably talented woman had wanted to act all her life but never got around to it until about a decade ago when she was in her middle 70s. Since then, I’ve seen her in a lot of roles but this one is by far the frosting on the cake. Smith is very, very good.
You may recall the 1985 film version of this Horton Foote play for which Geraldine Page received the Oscar as Best Actress. Let me point out that Miss Page, in her early 60s, was nearly a quarter century younger than Betty Scott Smith when she played this role.
The protagonist of Bountiful is an elderly widow, Mrs. Carrie Watts, who wants nothing more than to return to the small Gulf Coast town of her girlhood she still refers to as “home.” But now she is cooped up in a two-room Houston, Texas, apartment with her hen-pecked, middle-aged, only son, Ludie (Jack Crowe), and his bossy, outspoken wife Jessie Mae (Georg Coleman). The couple’s been married 15 years but have no children. The younger woman cannot stand Mother Watts’ hymn-singing or her constant pouting when she’s criticized.
Overprotective Ludie is too concerned for his mother’s health to let her travel alone. Her controlling daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae, insists they don’t have enough money to squander on a bus ticket. But despite her weak heart and her occasional “sinking spells,” Mother Watts has strong determination. She hates city life and wants to get back to her roots.
In fact, she tried to run away before but has never been successful. Each month when her meager government pension check arrives, Mrs. Watts dons her white gloves and battered cloche hat and makes an escape attempt. But somehow son Ludie and his wife always find her and bring her back.
The well-chosen cast is ably directed by Carl Occhipinti. This play might sound like a sentimental snooze-a tale about coping with loss and aging-but in fact it’s quite funny and uplifting. The leads are especially strong. Meek, cowardly Ludie strives to do the right thing and Crowe clearly shows the strain of trying to please both women. He still calls his mother “ma’am” and erupts in a touching outburst in the second act.
Coleman is excellent as the vain, self-absorbed Jessie Mae. She’s like a teenager, preferring to spend her time drinking Coca Cola, reading movie magazines, getting her hair permed, and going to double-bill “picture shows.” She also clearly regards Mother Watts’ pension check as her own property. Coleman is especially good in her quick-fire repartee with her mother-in-law.
Smith, meanwhile, makes Mrs. Watts a credible, touching character. She shows remarkably subtle shifts through a range of moods. She’s not just some sweet little old lady but a complex character. She’s scatterbrained yet wily. Smith reveals her intense religious devotion but also shows a stubborn, ornery streak, with still a hint of girlishness.
Sometimes we hear about how, in the days before the option of nursing homes, it was a better world when families all took care of their elderly. Well, this play shows that approach was perhaps not always the best way to go. Mrs. Watts and her shrewish daughter-in-law spend all their time irritating one another in very cramped, claustrophobic quarters. Mrs. Watts opens her heart to virtual strangers yet her own family is oblivious to her yearning and heartbreak.
As she sneaks off on a sentimental journey to her birthplace, Mrs. Watts boards a bus where she makes the acquaintance of a young soldier’s wife (Julie Hurt). This character provides an excuse to eavesdrop on Carrie Watts’ background and intense personal feelings while she shares her life story with this sweet fellow traveler.
As her odyssey unfolds, Mother Watts receives other kindnesses from strangers. There’s a helpful bus stationmaster (Jon van Luling) who tracks down her lost pocketbook, and a kindly sheriff (Joe Kennedy) who drives her out to see her old rundown homestead.
Apparently, when the “land played out,” perhaps during dustbowl days with the coming of the Great Depression, Mrs. Watts and her son came to Houston for a better life. But she never stopped longing for the time and place in her life that she lost.
Though the era is not clearly established nor the date indicated in the program, it seems to be the postwar period-perhaps the late 1940s. This was still a time when most women lived their lives through their men. But there is little use of south Texas dialect among the cast members.
The play by Horton Foote, known for creating strong southern characters, was originally a TV production in 1953 with Lillian Gish as Carrie Watts and Eileen Heckert as Jessie Mae.
This production is presented in the newly renovated Play Ground Studio performance space at Village Players. The comfortable raked seating is a wonderful addition to this intimate theater space.
The Trip to Bountiful is not a tearjerker but a strong and touching tribute to the resilient spirit of an amazing woman, played by a resilient, amazing actress. I am in awe of her performance. I can scarcely remember the title of the play and she’s going full-steam with two hours’ worth of dialogue. Just amazing.