Horton Foote's enchanting tale of an old woman's single-minded quest to return to her childhood home gets a memorable production under the deft direction of Michael Wilson and featuring thrilling performances by Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood. Foote's play has had many incarnations since it debuted as a television play on NBC in 1953 with Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint, most famously as a feature film starring Geraldine Page. As a playwright, Foote had a quiet, courtly approach to his dramas, which often made his work seem tame or intimate in comparison with his more flamboyant contemporaries.
However, this latest production, which opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles after a successful Broadway run, demonstrates the power of Foote's approach. Wilson and his exceptional cast have found great moments of wit and levity in Foote's script, something that was lacking in previous renditions, which leaned heavily on the nostalgia and melancholy of the piece. However, Tyson, Williams and Underwood infuse a joy and cheer into the play that add to the power of Foote's writing.
Octogenarian Cicely Tyson as Mrs. Carrie Watts is a force of nature, and her performance is riveting. With simplicity of gesture and an animation of movement, Tyson is the living and breathing embodiment of a magnificent woman who is trapped by age and circumstance. Vanessa Williams, as Carrie's rival for her son's affections, is superb. She embraces her delicious character's sharp edges with gusto and sears the domestic conflict into sharp focus as she battles her mother-in-law with a constant tete-a-tete. Yet Williams also finds the pathos in her character's life, and so one empathizes with both these embattled women. Blair Underwood as son and husband Ludie Watts has, in many ways, the pivotal role in the play as he negotiates over the din of the two women's battles. In Underwood's subtle and perceptive performance, we find the soul of a good man, trying to bring peace and harmony to his own little world.
While Foote's play may be looking to the past for inspiration, it is a reminder of the America that lives on in the present, perhaps a bit shadowy and below the surface, but still flowing through the American character. This production, which features a multi-ethnic, though largely African-American cast, achieves what so many other plays fail to do - convey both the universal and specifically American experience that all of us share. While this casting may enrich the texture of the work, it is a tribute to the universality of Foote's writing that it seamlessly evokes the humanity that all of us share, no matter who we are or where we come from.