Horton Foote’s touching 1953 drama The Trip to Bountiful has returned to the Broadway stage, starring Oscar nominee Cicely Tyson as an elderly woman who longs to return to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas. Below, we chart the emotional journey of Bountiful from Foote’s childhood memories to TV, Broadway, a lauded film and now back to the Great White Way.
A Childhood in Wharton
Before Horton Foote became a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter, he spent his formative years in Wharton, Texas, among a large extended family. “I was fond of all of them, and particularly close to my mother’s mother and father, her younger sisters and her brothers,” Foote said in his memoir, Farewell. “The backyards of our houses joined and we were always, it seemed to me, visiting each other.”
In spite of his Texas roots, Los Angeles beckoned, and Foote left home by bus at 16, intially hoping to become an actor. Encouraged by a director to develop sketches he had written, he would allude to his small-town upbringing for the rest of his life in dozens of works, often setting plays in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas (borrowing the name from his grandfather, Albert Harrison Foote).
While writing for TV’s The Quaker Oats Show, Foote kept thinking about childhood days exploring rural Texas with his grandfather. “As they drove... young Horton was always struck by one town that had been totally abandoned,” Wilborn Hampton wrote in the biography Horton Foote: American Storyteller. “All that remained was the cemetery.” When TV producer Fred Coe offered Foote the opportunity to write a teleplay for NBC, he set out to tell the story of an elderly woman’s quest to see her beloved Texas hometown one final time.
The Trip to Bountiful aired on March 1, 1953, on The Philco Television Playhouse. Directed by Vincent Donehue, the teleplay starred stage legend Lillian Gish as Carrie Watts, who tries desperately to return to her hometown (the fictional Bountiful—a few miles from Harrison), John Beale as her protective son Ludie, Eileen Heckart as her domineering daughter-in-law Jessie Mae and Eva Marie Saint as Thelma, a young woman Carrie befriends on the bus.
Moments after the program aired, “The network’s switchboard was flooded with calls from viewers,” said Hampton. Even William S. Paley, head of rival network CBS, called. “Television came of age tonight,” Paley said, according to Quentin Crisp’s How to Go to the Movies. The Trip to Bountiful was officially a smash hit.
Given the overwhelming response to the teleplay, Coe was convinced that Bountiful would also become a hit on Broadway. Gish and Saint reprised their roles alongside Broadway vets Gene Lyons as Ludie and Jo Van Fleet as Jessie Mae. Unfortunately, Hampton notes, “Gish and Van Fleet took an instant dislike to each other. Van Fleet thought the play was about her character, not the mother, and the two actresses sniped at each other throughout rehearsals. It was a feud that carried on for the rest of their lives.”
The tension in the rehearsal room wasn’t the only problem: The stage adaptation was split into three acts, and the playwright sensed that the pacing was off, noting that with two intermissions, “the buildup of tension in Carrie’s drive to reach Bountiful [was] lost.” The production opened on November 3, 1953, at Henry Miller’s Theatre. Fleet won a Tony for her performance, but after mixed reviews, Bountiful closed after only 39 performances.
Carrie Goes to Hollywood
Fast forward to 1985: Actor and stage director Peter Masterson (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) approached Foote, his second cousin, about directing a feature film version of The Trip to Bountiful. By then, Foote was a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter (for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies), but, according to Frank Miller of Turner Classic Movies, he "had resisted [Bountiful] film offers for years because he wanted Gish to re-create her role." By then, however, Gish was too old to travel to Texas, so Foote changed his mind, with one condition: Geraldine Page or Kim Stanley, both legendary Broadway vets, would have to play Carrie Watts.
The first-time film director cast Page alongside John Heard as Ludie, Rebecca De Mornay as Thelma and Masterson’s wife, Tony winner Carlin Glynn, as Jessie Mae. Although Page was a seasoned actress, she “told Masterson not to let her get away with the acting tricks she had developed over the years, but rather to push her to give a totally honest performance,” Miller explained. A critical and box office hit, The Trip to Bountiful was nominated for Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1985 Academy Awards.
In a tough category that included Meryl Streep (Out of Africa), Anne Bancroft (Agnes of God), Jessica Lange (Sweet Dreams) and Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple), Page took home her first Oscar after eight prior nominations. Amid a standing ovation, the actress, visibly shocked, stepped up to the podium. “I thank Horton Foote for all this,” she said. “I’m so glad that the members of the Academy responded to Carrie Watts the way I did.”
Back to Broadway
Horton Foote's reputation as a playwright rose in the 1990s, boosted by a Pulitzer Prize for The Young Man From Atlanta, part of Signature Theater's all-Foote season. In 2005, he gave the off-Broadway company permission to produce The Trip to Bountiful, reportedly cutting 15 pages from the script to eliminate the intermissions. Lois Smith gave a widely hailed performance as Carrie in a cast that included the playwright's daughter Hallie as Jessie Mae and Hallie's husband, Devon Abner, as Ludie. Foote remained active in the theater until his death in 2009.
Now, 60 years after Broadway took its first Trip to Bountiful, the play is back in the same space (now known as Sondheim Theatre) where it premiered. In her first Main Stem appearance in 30 years, Cicely Tyson plays Carrie, a role she fell in love with on screen. “I went to see Geraldine Page in it,” the 79-year-old actress told Broadway.com. “And I went to my agent and said, ‘You get me my Trip to Bountiful, and then I’ll retire.’”
Hallie Foote gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the revival's lead casting, Tyson added, telling the actress, "I know that my father would want no one else but you to play this role.” Director Michael Wilson, who helmed Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle, also felt a special connection to Bountiful. “It’s one of the great American classics,” he told Broadway.com, “and you see that every day as Cicely is bringing Carrie Watts so vividly to life.”
The revival features Vanessa Williams as Jessie Mae, Condola Rashad as Thelma and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. in his Broadway debut as Ludie. “It’s an opportunity to share the stage with a legend—with an icon,” Gooding told Broadway.com, adding that the play is a stirring journey for both the cast and the audience. “The Trip to Bountiful is an emotional experience that you will never forget.”
The Trip to Bountiful opens April 23 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.