For all its lip service to rural America and its salt-of-the-Earth folk, city mice have always dominated perceptions of rural life in popular culture, particularly the theater. By and large, those perceptions either romanticize (Oklahoma!), stereotype (Steel Magnolias), ridicule (too many to count) or, in the case of a writer such as Sam Shepard, use flyover country as a metaphor for the disintegration of the American Dream.
But practical plays about practical people by playwrights from small-town America are rarely seen. Even Thornton Wilder's epic exploration of rural life, Our Town, was written by a Yale-educated egghead and is awash in mysticism and metaphor. The co-opting of the Americana narrative by urbane writers may explain why country mouse Horton Foote doesn't get the kind of attention that his body of work—or reputation—would seem to merit. After all, here's a guy who wrote more than 60 plays and films and won an Academy Award in 1962 for adapting To Kill a Mockingbird into a screenplay and a 1995 Pulitzer in drama for The Young Man From Atlanta, an honor that seemed more of a recognition of his lifetime achievement than an award for that particular play.
The majority of Foote's plays are based in and around the small southeastern Texas town of Wharton, where he was born and raised. An hour southwest of Houston, it was—and remains—Bible Belt, good-ol'-boy territory. But his characters aren't country bumpkins, deranged farmers or hypocritical Bible-thumpers. And his stories are just that: stories. They're about ordinary people dealing with all the triumphs and travails of daily life. But though no dead babies lurk beneath the floorboards nor is any effort made to champion rural life as any purer or mock it for being simpler than urban life, a play such as The Trip to Bountiful shows that as simplistic and homespun as Foote's work may seem on the surface, a huge reservoir of emotion and spirit rests beneath.
Bountiful may be Foote's best-known play; the film version netted Geraldine Page an Oscar in 1985. At first, second, even third glances, there isn't a whole lot here. It's 1953, and an aging Carrie Watts lives in a small apartment in Houston with her dominating daughter-in-law and henpecked son. She has been there for 20 years and yearns to return to the small Gulf Coast town of Bountiful, where her family once owned a 350-acre farm. Bountiful is now deserted, its soil farmed out and its former residents either buried or, in the case of Watts and her son, forced to move to the big city in order to find work.
But Mrs. Watts (a wonderfully emphatic and conflicted Lynn Milgrim) is either oblivious or doesn't care about what's in Bountiful. She just knows that it's her home, and she's sick of being cooped up in an apartment all day with her son's shrill wife (a spitfire-ish Jennifer Lyon, who comes perilously close to more caricature than character, but never crosses the line). She also has a heart condition, her memory is fading, and her son (a stoic and tired Daniel Reichert, caught in the cross-hairs between two women who constantly bicker) knows there is no way she could survive living off her government pension check. But that doesn't stop Carrie from routinely fleeing the apartment in hopes of catching a train or bus to Bountiful. It's a routine that has been going on for years: Every time she slips away, her son corrals her. But, of course, that routine changes in the course of the play. Otherwise, there really wouldn't be much of a play, would there?
Foote's characters spend a great deal of time talking about things that seem inconsequential: Coca-Cola, trips to the beauty parlor, picture shows. But sprinkled throughout the conversations are tiny grenades of disclosure: couples unable to have children, infants dying, star-crossed love. These people aren't heroes or villains, but their lives have had their moments of devastation and loss, and they choose to either live in the past to make sense of how their lives have turned out or forcibly ignore it in order to not deal with the present.
It's a very simple, but exceptionally well-told story handled with deep respect by director Martin Benson. There are no shots fired, no skeletons hiding in the closet, no epic scope, fancy-pants verbiage or Big Ideas floating about. But there's a huge amount of soul and heart, and when Foote's main point is delivered—the notion that one can still find strength and meaning in one's roots, even when those roots appear to be hopelessly withered and dying—it's an intensely poignant moment.
As with so many plays, both great and not-so-great, Bountiful is about home, about leaving it, trying to make a new one, dreaming of the one left behind. And how, ultimately, home may not be an actual place that your body occupies, but rather a personal realm where your heart abides.
This review appeared in print as “Heart Is Where the Home Is: The Trip to Bountiful and the universal desire for one's roots.”
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???