Friday, October 14, 2011

Director Martin Benson Leads 'The Trip to Bountiful'

Horton Foote: His Legacy

“I believe very deeply in the human spirit, and I have a sense of awe about it. I look around and ask, ‘What makes the difference? What is it?’ I’ve known people the world has thrown everything at to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity.”
–Horton Foote

Horton Foote was born in 1916 in the small Texas gulf town of Wharton. Foote made his Broadway debut in 1944 with his play Only the Heart. He continued to write for the stage as he expanded his pen into Hollywood, writing teleplays and films. Foote won the 1962 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Foote wrote more than 60 plays and films, most set in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas.

A few of Horton Foote’s many other plays include:
Wharton Dance (1940)
Texas Town (1941)
The Trip to Bountiful (1962, based on his 1953 screenplay)
Roots in a Parched Ground (1962)
Tomorrow (1968)
Night Seasons (1977)
Courtship (1987)
In a Coffin in Egypt (1980)
Cousins (1983)
One Armed Man (1985)
The Widow Claire (1986)
Lily Dale (1986)
Dividing the Estate (1989)
The Young Man From Atlanta (1995)
The Day Emily Married (1996)
Vernon Early (1998)
The Death of Papa (1999)
The Carpetbagger's Children (2001)

For more information about Horton Foote’s life, read his New York Times obituary.

The Trip to Bountiful, by the late Horton Foote, is a play that resonates for director Martin Benson: “As the season was shaping up, and I was looking for a project,” he said, “I was drawn to this play with its enduring themes. As life nears its end, the desire to return home is strong. It’s a universal story that could be happening in any country in the world."

He talked about the importance of home, and the pull that landscape has: “That’s why people struggle so hard against being put in nursing homes—they don’t want to give up their home.”

The play is set in 1953 and follows Carrie Watts, who has been living with her son, Ludie, and his wife, Jessie Mae, in Houston for the last 20 years. They’re in a cramped two-room apartment, and Ludie has only recently recovered from a lengthy illness and returned to work. Jessie Mae is more interested in movie magazines and trips to the drugstore soda fountain than she is in spending time with Mother Watts. There’s no love lost on Mother Watts’ side, either: She is constantly longing to return to the small Gulf Coast town where she grew up—Bountiful, Texas—but Jessie Mae won’t hear of it.

Carrie has made attempts to escape before, but Ludie and Jessie Mae have always managed to find her and stop her before she got very far. Her longing to get out of the pressure-cooker of the city and her living situation is palpable, if unspoken.

Horton and Benson on the set of
Getting Frankie Married—and Afterwards

Benson described Carrie as “immensely appealing. She’s had a hard life—not marrying the man she truly loved, but still seeing him every day; her babies that didn’t survive; and now she’s stuck in a tiny apartment in Houston with her son and daughter-in-law. All she wants is to see Bountiful one more time, so she can make her peace and accept her life.”

The Trip to Bountiful is adapted from a 1953 script that Foote wrote for television. Over the years, the play has been produced countless times. In 1985, it was revived as a film; Geraldine Page won the Academy Award for best actress, and Foote was nominated for the screenplay (see box for more about Foote’s work).

Benson noted, “Horton rewrote The Trip to Bountiful for the 2005 production at Signature Theatre. He cut about 15 pages from the script, so now the play is considerably condensed. It was originally a three-act play, but having two intermissions just isn’t palatable any longer to a modern audience.”

Benson has a long history with Foote, having directed the world premiere of Getting Frankie Married—and Afterwards and the West Coast premiere of The Carpetbagger’s Children at SCR.

Foote once said in an interview, “The people in my plays are always people I know, but they don’t end up in the play as I knew them. It’s like a collage. You take a little bit from here and a little bit from there. You start out, at least I do, with a very definite impression and a feeling [about the people]. As you work on it, the play finds its life.”

Horton's Home in Wharton
Before starting work on Getting Frankie Married, Benson visited Foote at his Texas home for a few days. Benson speaks fondly of the trip, describing his excitement at being able to meet the people from whom Foote drew his characters. Benson and Foote traveled to many of the small towns in the Gulf region of Texas that figure so prominently in Foote’s work, including Foote’s hometown of Wharton.

The production of The Trip to Bountiful sets up some unique challenges for a designer. The set must transform completely from the apartment in Houston to a bus station and more, and Benson worked with set designer Tom Buderwitz to make all locations shift seamlessly in front of the audience.

Benson said, “The Segerstrom is a big, wide stage, and we were challenged to make it feel small and intimate.”

Benson and Buderwitz have tackled many productions together, and the creative team includes other longtime SCR collaborators, including Angela Balogh Calin, who has designed costumes for more than a dozen shows at SCR, and Tom and Donna Ruzika, who have designed lights at SCR for more than 35 years. They’re joined by relative newcomer Cricket S. Myers, who designed sound for Lucky Duck and Three Days of Rain last season.

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