Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Church of Horton Foote

(Lizan Mitchell, left, is Carrie and Howard W. Overshown plays her son, Ludie, in the Cleveland Play House production of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful." Photo by Roger Mastroianni.) 

So far, the Cleveland Play House season has reveled in gaudy, synthetic trinkets worthy of a Times Square souvenir shop. But now it's time to toss out the hallelujahs and pour the holy wine, for this institution has rediscovered its footing by conducting a life-affirming journey through Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful."

For many decades, the late Foote developed into one of our finest Chekhov-inspired regionalists, along with William Inge and Tennessee Williams. Whereas his two cohorts chronicle the melancholic crushing of sensitive souls - think Blanche in the asylum or Lola mourning her lost youth - Foote long exuded the overpowering gentleness of a yarn-spinning Unitarian minister. His forte in such works as "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Tender Mercies" and, perhaps most archetypically, "Bountiful" is dramatizing how trapped people come together and reconnect with their roots and their dignity. A villain in a Foote play is as rare as a cliche in Chekhov.

"The Trip to Bountiful" first saw the light of day as an hour-long television play for the radiant Lillian Gish as Carrie, an aged country woman smothered like a famished house plant while passing her days in the urban apartment of her well-meaning son and daughter-in-law. The work is a Whitman Sampler variation on the Odyssey as Carrie escapes the city and returns to her deserted family farm in Bountiful. Something as small as the twitter of the birds of her childhood replenishes her so that she can live the rest of her life in harmony with her family.

The Play House is making much of the fact that this is the first black production of the work. Yet the playwright's universal humanity is so pervasive that the racial tweak seems perfectly natural as directed by Timothy Douglas. Foote's beautifully tuned regional speech has the musical lilt of a Copland soundtrack, and the actors are the perfect instruments for his tender poetry. As Carrie, Lizan Mitchell scampers across the stage with the mischievous energy of a Disney chipmunk. The entire auditorium lights up along with her awe-struck face as she recalls the sweet birds of her youth.

In all of my experiences of Horton Foote on stage and screens big and small, he has proved to be the one dramatic tonic that never fails to rejuvenate.

The Cleveland Play House performs "The Trip to Bountiful" through Sunday, Feb. 27. For tickets, call 216-795-7000.

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