The persistence of memory
One of the most heartfelt and moving performances by an actress in Santa Fe this year is undoubtedly Lois Viscoli’s portrayal of Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, presented by Ironweed Productions at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe. There are many actorly challenges in the role, not the least of which is the stamina and discipline required. Viscoli not only runs circles around the other actors (literally), she brings depth, color, and drive to her portrayal of Carrie Watts, a hymn-singing Texan woman who just wants to go home to the farm she worked with her family.
Horton Foote, the Oscar-and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter, wrote the script first as a TV drama that then had a short Broadway run in 1962. The movie (with Foote’s screenplay) didn’t come out until 1985; Carrie was played by Geraldine Page, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. In rewrites of the story over the intervening years, Foote decided that Carrie’s journey was more interesting than the events leading up to it. He was right.
In the play (set in the early 1950s), the trip itself — back to the former family farm in Bountiful, Texas, where the “used-up” land has been reclaimed by the woods, the house is rotting to the point of collapse, and the town no longer exists — doesn’t begin until the second act. Carrie has spent “20 years walking and grieving,” spending the last two decades sleeping on the livingroom sofa and climbing the walls of the one-bedroom Houston apartment where her son lives with his understandably put-upon wife.
Claustrophobia may create tension between Carrie and her family members — the stir-crazy daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (played by Mona Malec), and Ludie Watts, the loving but rather passive son (played by Robert Nott) — but it doesn’t lead directly to the transcendent emotional climax offered in the second act. The play really begins when Carrie sits on a waiting-room bench at the bus station and strikes up a conversation with a young military wife heading in the same direction (wonderfully played by Vanessa Rios y Valles). It is their sharing of stories and the subsequent chain of events that almost keep Carrie from reaching her destination that resonate with action and emotion. The first act is just bickering.
One aspect of the production that deserves special mention is the sound design by Grady Hughes. Music, subtly employed between scenes, ranges from hummed spirituals to instrumental background music — but all of it has such a well-chosen sweetness that it helps establish a sense of place equal to Carrie’s descriptions of gulf-scented air and the taste of water from the cistern, back on the farm in Bountiful.
When Carrie finally gets to Bountiful, walking in a kind of trance, Viscoli’s eyes describe a lifetime of regret tempered with the sweetness of memory. Reality isn’t important, not on stage, and not in the main character’s mind. When she says, in a voice that could bring tears to the most jaded theater-goer, “I’ve had my trip,” one can appreciate the genius of a playwright who saw no need for melodrama and an actress who seems to feel more than act.
— Michael Wade Simpson “The Trip to Bountiful,” presented by Ironweed Productions, continues Thursdays through Sundays at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe (555 Camino de la Familia, 992-0591) through May 9. For tickets, call 660-2379.