About the author:
Over the past 16 years, director Michael Wilson has become one of the premiere interpreters of Horton Foote’s vast catalogue of plays depicting family life in Texas. Wilson collaborated with the esteemed playwright until his death in 2009, notably on the Broadway production of Dividing the Estate and the off-Broadway trilogy The Orphans’ Home Cycle, as well as a number of regional productions. Now, Wilson is back on Broadway, directing Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, starring Cicely Tyson, Cuba Gooding Jr.,Vanessa Williams and Tony nominee Condola Rashad. Below, Wilson recounts his first exposure to Foote’s work and his blossoming friendship with the Foote family at their home in Wharton, Texas.
During my senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I took a modern drama class that changed my life. Our professor, Dr. Milly S. Barranger, had just been to New York to see Horton Foote’s new play The Widow Claire, starring his daughter, Hallie, and Matthew Broderick. My teacher had so much passion for the delicate beauty of that play, and it really resonated with me. So that week, when my sister invited me to her house for a movie night, I told her I’d like to watch The Trip to Bountiful, for which Geraldine Page had won an Oscar just two years before.
From the moment my sister put the tape in the VCR, I was transfixed. Here I was, at the beginning of my adult life—graduation was approaching, and I had so much fear and anxiety churning inside me—and I was incredibly moved by the story of Carrie Watts, a woman at the end of her life, trying to get home to Bountiful, Texas. I didn’t want my sister to see, but I was crying. I thought it was the most beautiful, truthful, dramatic, heartbreaking, triumphant, real human story I had ever seen.
Then, a serendipitous thing happened: I was visiting my family in my hometown of Winston-Salem, and Horton Foote happened to be there for a speaking engagement. I was about to head off to study playwriting at Harvard’s summer drama program, but I was still unsure about whether I wanted to pursue a career in film or theater. After hearing Horton speak, I went up and asked him for advice. “I don’t give advice,” he said, “but I will tell you I’ve had my greatest satisfaction from my work in the theater.” So that’s exactly what I decided to do.
I never in a million years thought I’d move to Texas, but in 1990, I was asked to become the artistic associate of the Alley Theatre in Houston, under the artistic direction of Gregory Boyd. And who should the Alley be honoring that spring? Horton Foote! Amanda Plummer, Jean Stapleton, Jim Lehrer and Betty Buckley were all in attendance and, of course, Horton and his family. I renewed my friendship with him during this time and was invited to visit him at his childhood home in Wharton, Texas. His wife, Lillian, gave me directions: “Now you get on Richmond Road and you cross the railroad tracks, then take a left before the Jack in the Box.” Wharton was this rural, southern town, where historic homes lined the streets fused with a modern influx of commerce and fast food restaurants. It was so much like Dividing the Estate!
The first time I drove the 50 miles from Houston to the Footes’ home in Wharton, we ate dinner in the dining room—the second time, we ate in the kitchen, which made me really feel like part of the family. After dinner, we’d sit in the front parlor, and Horton would tell me about his life in the theater, how he started out as an actor, his training at the Pasadena Playhouse, his work with the American Actors’ Company and his experimental work with Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins. Horton taught me so many lessons, but most of all, he taught me a deep respect for actors. Thanks to him, I’ve cultivated a vast curiosity and patience for actors while they’re building their performances.
Horton, Hallie and I began working together artistically in 1997, with the world premiere of The Death of Papa at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. The production was produced by Milly Barranger, the professor who had first turned me on to Foote 10 years earlier, and starred Matthew Broderick, Ellen Burstyn, and Polly Holliday. Until Horton’s death in 2009, I was fortunate enough to direct a number of his plays, including Dividing the Estate, The Carpetbagger’s Children, The Day Emily Married, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, and the 50th anniversary production of The Trip to Bountiful at Hartford Stage—a revival that was very close to Horton’s heart.
After Horton’s death, there was something unfulfilled about our Bountiful in Connecticut. It is such a rich play, the kind as a director that you would love to return to again and again. So when Hallie approached me in 2011 and asked what I thought about the play being centered around an African-American family as opposed to a white family, I thought it was a marvelous idea. Carrie Watts would have to be played by someone with luminosity and legacy—someone like Cicely Tyson, whose performances in Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman made such an indelible mark on me in my childhood. We finally got the script to Cicely last August. As it turned out, Pete Masterson’s film of The Trip to Bountiful had made a strong impact on Cicely, as it had on me. Hallie, Cicely and I met over dinner in September, and after a whirlwind six months, we were beginning previews at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
Everyone in our company feels that this is the moment to bring The Trip to Bountiful back to Broadway for the first time in 60 years. Our nation needs to experience this story. We need to consider the themes that Horton is exploring: that if we don’t honor the past—the places, the people, the communities from where we’ve come—we are in danger of losing the very essence of ourselves. The Trip to Bountiful reminds us that as we strive to live in a high-tech world that is increasingly isolating and discombobulating from the constant motion and stimuli, if we can somehow stop and truly connect with our family legacy, we can bring ourselves “home” again, and with that refound center, find the means to endure life’s inevitable disappointments and unwanted change.