A woman moves into a cramped apartment with married relatives in a city near the Gulf of Mexico, where both her presence and her yearning for her past in the country become a source of bitter conflict. But since "The Trip to Bountiful" is by Horton Foote and not Tennessee Williams, the outcome for widowed Carrie Watts is nowhere near as grim as the fate of Blanche DuBois. And as it turns out, Mrs. Watts can indeed depend upon the kindness of strangers and family alike.
Raven Theatre kicks off its season with director JoAnn Montemurro's sweet and solid production of Foote's play, originally created for television in 1953 and later turned into a film that won an Oscar for Geraldine Page as Carrie back in 1985. More recently, Cicely Tyson won a 2013 Tony Award for her performance, and many Chicago theatergoers undoubtedly have fond memories of Lois Smith's portrayal at the Goodman in 2008 as part of the theater's Horton Foote festival (a production I shall forever cherish, not least because it was the last play my mother saw).
Millicent Hurley Spencer's thoroughly beguiling performance as Carrie brings a watchful feverish edge to the widow Watts — appropriate, given that Spencer reads decidedly younger than her predecessors in the role.
And this in turn lends itself to nuances I'd not seen before. Over the course of the play, Spencer's face, set off by a severe bun, becomes a canvas upon which one can see glimpses of the dour farm woman from "American Gothic" one moment and the gleeful in-the-moment joy of a Norman Rockwell character the next.
When her controlling daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Eleanor Katz), commands her to stop running in the house, it feels like a supreme act of will for the angular and spry Spencer to comply and play the role of doddering crone being foisted upon her.
In this production, the fear isn't that Carrie is old and frail. It's that this senior citizen may very well still have the energy and gumption to take herself — and her pension check — away from Jessie Mae and her sweet but insecure son, Ludie (Michael Boone).
Foote's great strength as a dramatist is his ability to imbue small moments and phrases with existential qualms, without losing sight of the essential goodness in his characters.
Katz overplays the domineering shrew occasionally, but she also reveals Jessie Mae's aching loss as a woman who has never found a sense of purpose to replace the children she never had and always wanted. She dreams of running away to Hollywood as fervently as Carrie yearns to visit the small rural enclave where she grew up — and like her exasperating mother-in-law, she can admit that "the passage of time makes me sad." Boone's Ludie — soft-shouldered and soft-spoken — seems nearly suffocated by his own gnawing sense of inadequacy and his desire to do right by both the women in his life.
But unlike Williams' world, where danger and betrayal conspire together in the next room, Foote's people have an innate decency that keeps them from being crushed, even when their dreams have been left as flat and dusty as a country road.
Whether it's the sweet Thelma (Jen Short), who keeps Carrie company on her bus trip to what's left of Bountiful, or Larry Carani's sheriff, who takes her out to visit the shell of her past, Foote wants us to know that we're all just trying to do our best with our ground time here, before, like the birds over Bountiful, we will "fly away so fast."
Montemurro's staging, though it has some rough patches, provides a sweet and wise road map through memory, loss, time and tenderness.
When: Through Nov. 17
Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $36 at 773-338-2177 or raventheatre.com