summerstage's 'Trip to bountiful' a poignant journey

Carrie Watts (Mary Atwood) talks to the Sheriff (Jamie Ryan) after he drives her to her hometown of Bountiful, which has turned into a ghost town, in a scene from SummerStage's "The Trip to Bountiful."  Photos by George Katsekes

Carrie Watts (Mary Atwood) talks to the Sheriff (Jamie Ryan) after he drives her to her hometown of Bountiful, which has turned into a ghost town, in a scene from SummerStage's "The Trip to Bountiful." Photos by George Katsekes

By MARILYN JOZWIK

Published July 27, 2018

There is a magical moment near the end of SummerStage’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” the sort of theatrical pause that makes you realize just how special live theater can be.

Carrie Watts (Mary Atwood) is standing in front of her run-down house after a trip that took every ounce of her constitution. The usually bent-over woman is standing with her shoulders back, wearing a broad smile, looking at the beauty of her once-thriving hometown around her, exclaiming, “I am a happy woman.” What gives the scene even more realism is that she is looking out into the beauty of the SummerStage woods. It is an exclamation point on an incredible performance by Atwood, and the entire eight-member ensemble. Katie Lynne Krueger directs the show.

Written by Horton Foote, “The Trip to Bountiful” opens in a small apartment in Houston, Texas. The year is 1953. It doesn’t take long to see that three is a crowd for this household. Ludie (Logan Milway) has been in a 10-year childless marriage to Jessie Mae (Emerald Klauer) and is caught in the middle of the battles between his stubborn wife (“Nobody ever won an argument with Jessie Mae,” he says) and his aging mother, Carrie, who lives with them. Jessie Mae picks at Carrie constantly, criticizing her breaking into hymns or scurrying about the house to tidy up. Occasionally, Carrie will try to escape to the bus station to make the trip to Bountiful, her hometown, but she has never been successful.

Jessie Mae calls her “crazy,” when in fact Carrie’s only wish is to return to her hometown and regain the peace, dignity and freedom she once knew. If only for a moment.

A woman of faith

On this day, there’s a perfect storm of events and Carrie makes it onto the bus where her seatmate is a pretty newlywed, Thelma (Caitlyn Nettesheim), who is on her way to her family’s home while her husband is in the service. During their conversation, we learn about Carrie’s past – the man she loved that she couldn’t marry, her two young children who died, her memories of her friends, family and fertile farmland in beautiful Bountiful. Thelma shares her story, and we learn of Carrie’s deep faith as she recites from Psalm 91, “He is my refuge and fortress.” Her faith has helped her endure the last 20 years away from Bountiful.

The ending neatly wraps up the episode and puts a bow on top with Carrie finally getting her simple wish – seeing the birds and other sights that bring back a happier time. “The good Lord is with me today,” she exclaims, and “It’s nice to sing a hymn when I want.”

It is a journey masterfully navigated by this cast and director Krueger.

Jessie Mae  (Emerald Klauer) and Ludie Watts (Logan Milway) argue in their apartment bedroom in a scene from SummerStage's "The Trip to Bountiful."

Jessie Mae  (Emerald Klauer) and Ludie Watts (Logan Milway) argue in their apartment bedroom in a scene from SummerStage's "The Trip to Bountiful."

This is an exceptional performance by Atwood, a very challenging role which gives the performer very little respite. Atwood is totally up to the challenge, taking on Carrie’s persona and making it her own – down to a Southern accent with a bit of old age quiver, small, quick-moving steps and slightly hunched posture, giving her all the qualities of her age. 

So often in community theater, the accent is there, but not the drawl. Atwood extends so many phrases effectively, such as “Isn’t that ni-ice” or “Thank you so mu-uch.” When she talks about Bountiful, the urgency in her voice is heart-wrenching. She pleads with Ludie, “I want to go home,” or with the sheriff she meets on her journey, “Let me see my home again,” and her final insistence, “No sheriff or king or president is going to keep me from getting back to Bountiful.” Just a wonderful, spellbinding performance.

Natural conversation

This whole cast is marvelous. I love Klauer’s Jessie Mae and her spoiled Southern Belle demeanor; she is perfectly cast for this role. Jessie Mae is a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. Klauer was also wonderful in Lake Country Playhouse’s “Unnecessary Farce” recently, so I’m hoping to see more of her in the area. With her convincing accent and comic flair she’d be a wonderful addition to any cast of “Steel Magnolias” or “Dixie Swim Club.”

Milway’s Ludie is also nicely rendered, following up his fine comic turn as Valere in SummerStage’s “Tartuffe” earlier this summer. As Ludie, Milway does well at walking the fine line of trying to please both mother and wife. His scene with his mother in front of his childhood home is most touching.

As Thelma, Nettesheim is also effective, playing off Atwood so naturally in their bus conversation you feel as if you are eavesdropping in the seat in front of them.

All roles here are well done, including Jim Mallmann and John Gelshenen as ticket takers, as well as Matthias Schwalbach as the Harrison ticket agent. Jamie Ryan adds a bit of comedy, playing an impatient traveler at the bus station and also does well as the Sheriff.

Costume Designer Claire Tidwell added some well-chosen period outfits for the show, while Christopher Kurtz created a good re-creation of the ramshackle Watts home that easily swung around into view toward the end of the show.

If you go

Who: SummerStage of Delafield

What: “The Trip to Bountiful”

When: Through Aug. 4

Where: SummerStage, Lapham Peak State Park, W329 N846 County Highway C, Delafield

Tickets/Info: summerstageofdelafield.org/ (262) 337-1560