Raven Stages a Masterful ‘TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL’

TheTriptoBountiful horiz 2Reviewed by: Russell Goeltenbodt:

I never had the opportunity to see the movie “The Trip to Bountiful” in 1985. This film starring Geraldine Page, John Heard, Carlin Glynn, Richard Bradford and Rebecca De Mornay promised to be an Oscar winner. Unfortunately I never saw the film. However, after recently seeing the 2013 season premiere production at Chicago’s Raven Theater, I am glad I waited. The Raven Theater production proved to be a wonderful theater experience that included an interesting story, with excellent characters, and actors with fabulous performances.

“The Trip to Bountiful” is a story written by playwright and author Horton Foote, who earned a Pulitzer Prize, Writers Guild of America Screen Award, and double Academy Awards.  Mr. Foote is best known for his screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. His work often told stories of ordinary people handling the harsh realities of life and the strength of the human spirit.

“The Trip to Bountiful” is set in Houston Texas in the early 1950s. It is about an older woman named Carrie Watts who is living a life she didn’t choose. Mrs. Watts, who is dependent and living with her son and daughter-in-law in their cramped apartment, is clearly not happy with her life. Her son Ludie, who is working hard to support his family and is having a difficult time making ends meet due to recovering from a two year illness. Ludie is getting back on his feet with his company, and his mother is assisting her son and his wife by providing her monthly pension check to help support his family.  Ludie’s wife, Jessie Mae is clearly used to the finer things in life.  She enjoys movie magazines, getting her hair done, and is clearly annoyed with having Ludie’s mother living with them. However, she is happy with the fact that her mother in law does all of the cooking and cleaning. She is also happy to take her monthly pension check to buy her necessities. Therefore, there are barriers which most mothers and daughter in laws experience, along with the resentment.

For Carrie’s entire life, she lived on her family’s cotton farm in Bountiful, Texas; a rural farming town located on the Gulf of Mexico.  Carrie lived there until the crops were not reaping much benefit, where most of her Bountiful neighbors ended up selling their farms and moving. Carrie then followed suit and moved to Houston with her son.  Now that Carrie’s health is failing, she is planning to escape her confinement to make it back to her home in Bountiful one last time to see her beloved home and friends. There she could live the rest of her days in peace. Her mission is to escape her confinement by hiding her pension check from her daughter in law Jessie Mae, and leaving unnoticed to reach her promised land.

The cast of The Trip to Bountiful includes: Millie Hurley (Mrs. Watts) who received a Jeff Award and an After Dark Award for her role in Raven’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa and has also performed with Lifeline Theatre, Mary Arrchie Theater and  The Redtwist Theatre; Mike Boone (Ludie Watts) who was recently seen at Raven in The Big Knife and Dating Walter Dante;  andElean or Katz (Jessie Mae Watts) who was seen at Raven in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and has worked with Boho and Redtwist Theater. Each actor beautifully portrayed their characters.

Millie Hurley who portrayed (Mrs. Watts) gave a compelling performance as an older woman who is feeling worthless and is yearning to fulfill her final wishes before she dies. In the first act of the performance, Millie has very little dialogue. However, the audience experienced her frustration and sadness through her eyes looking out her window at the full moon and humming hymns to herself.  This non-verbal performance told so much about Carrie Watts before she began to speak and Millie did a remarkable job in making her character believable.  Mike Boone who portrayed (Ludie Watts) is the dutiful son who is torn between his undying love for his mother and his commitment to his prima donna wife, Jessie Mae. Ludie is very laid back and just wants peace in his home. Unfortunately, Eleanor Katz who plays Ludie’s wife (Jessie Mae Watts) wants the finer things in life which Ludie is not able to provide. Jessie Mae longs to go out on the town, get her hair done, and go to movies. Unfortunately she is clearly frustrated because of the big obstacle which is Ludie’s mom, Carrie. Ludie is wonderfully portrayed by Mike where you see that he struggles between his love for his mother and his devotion to make his wife happy. Jessie Mae on the other hand, is an irritable, spoiled bitch. She is clearly not from the same part of Texas, that Carrie and her son Ludie is from.   Eleanor is very believable in her part, especially when I met the actress after the performance, where she proved to be a sweet wonderful woman from New Jersey. I will have to say that the Texas dialects from these actors were very accurate. Personally having family from Corpus Christi, (located in southern Texas on the Gulf of Mexico), they have a distinct accent which is a low drawl, almost a mumble. Millie and Mike were successful at duplicating these regional accents.  Jessie Mae reminded me of my aunt who moved to Texas from Chicago when she was 18 years old. Like my aunt, Eleanor’s character, Jessie Mae was from a more urban less simple community, which was evident in her speech and in her behavior. Therefore, the acting from Millie, Mike, and Eleanor was superb and made their performance compelling, heartwarming, and believable.

The supporting cast gave excellent performances as well. They include: Jen Short as (Thelma); Larry Carani as (Houston Tix Man/Sheriff); Conor Clark as (Harrison Tix Man/A Traveler) and Justin Castellano as (Second Houston Tix Man).  Jen Short as Thelma was particularly believable as the young woman who befriended and understood Carrie Watts’ quest to return to her home town. Jen’s performance was sweet and made you wish you could find a similar person in your life when you need a friend.TheTriptoBountiful horiz 3

“The Trip to Bountiful” is masterfully directed by Director JoAnn Montemurro, who is a co-founding member and Co-Artistic Director of Raven Theatre. JoAnn has directed productions of Bus Stop, The Long Goodbye, Lord Byron’s Love Letter and Grace & Glorie. She has also appeared as an actress in many roles.  Most recently, JoAnn appeared as the mother in  Raven’s last spring’s production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs”.  JoAnn along with co-artistic director Michael Menendian, received a special Jeff Award for outstanding contribution to Chicago theatre in 2008.

The production runs for 2 ½ hours which seems long. However, there are two short intermissions to create the appropriate transitions to the scenes, which are seamless and necessary.

The production staff for “The Trip to Bountiful”  includes: Ray Toler (Set Design), Kate Murphy (Costume Design), Diane Fairchild (Lighting Design), Luke Sword (Sound Design), Mary O’Dowd (Properties Design/Set Dressing), Andrei Onegin (Technical Director). Kate Masiak serves as Stage Manager and Justin Castellano serves as Assistant Stage Manager/Master Electrician. Again I have to say that the Raven does an excellent job with stage construction.  All of their sets are very well done.

The Raven Theater’s first ever, Executive Director, Kelli Strickland introduced herself at the beginning of the performance. Kelli vowed to continue her commitment to bring excellence to the Raven Theater. She certainly is off to a wonderful start with “The Trip to Bountiful”. This production is truly a must see, which I highly recommend. I don’t only recommend this production, I recommend the Raven Theater in Edgewater. If this season is as good or better as last season, theater patrons are in for a treat. The Raven Theater is truly a wonderful experience and is well worth the trip. Best wishes and much success to Kelli Strickland and the Raven Theater.

“The Trip to Bountiful” plays through November 17, 2013 at Raven Theatre’s East Stage, 6157 N. Clark Chicago, IL 60660.

Performances are scheduled Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.

Free parking is provided in a lot adjacent to the theatre; additional street parking is available. Raven Theatre is handicapped accessible.  For Tickets/information: www.raventheatre.com or 773-338-2177.  For calendar information visit TheatreinChicago.com