The Trip to Bountiful

The Trip to Bountiful Red Phoenix 2024Red Phoenix Theatre. Holden Street Theatres. 23 May 2024


References to Texan playwright Horton Foote as “America’s Chekov” really hit home with one experiences The Trip to Bountiful. One could add a slice of Tennessee Williams to the style and spirit he imparts. Or one could just say that he was a gifted writer and his plays sing with the social and psychological eloquence of a graceful pen.


This play first was produced on stage in the US in 1953 but not on stage in Adelaide until now, since it is a Red Phoenix principle that their productions are fresh to the local eye. Of course, it has been seen by many on the screen, firstly in 1986  starring Geraldine Page and again with a TV remake in 2014 starring Cicely Tyson.


It has held up through the years through the timelessly triste humanity of its theme. It depicts a frail old woman facing her final years under the thumb of a shallow and domineering daughter-in-law in a Houston apartment. Through sleepless nights she plots her escape dreaming to smell the trees and salt air of the old family farm in the obscure little country town of Bountiful while her hapless son tries to keep domestic peace with the wife who must be appeased.  


Finally, she makes a break for it.

The play traces her trip and the people she meets along the way.


Red Phoenix has gone the whole hog, so to speak, with really complicated sets on Holden Streets’ Studio space, changing the theatre entrance and building partitions to create corridors and separate rooms. Even the dressing room door is cleverly a part of this ambitious Kate Preston design.


It took a large team to construct it and it requires some hefty action onstage for scene changes. They are clunky, but forgivably worth the work when one gazes upon, for instance, the bus station agent whiling away the night shift with a book in his wee ticket office. It is a vivid vignette superbly lit by Richard Parkhill, that stalwart quality lighting designer.  On opening night, he had to actually come onstage to rescue the lighting after a show-stopping emergency with an audience member. The actors and crew handled the interruption with admirable professionalism.


It was a crucial moment in Sharon Malujlo’s performance as the old mother, Mrs Watts. Malujlo has been carving an honourable reputation and this characterisation, and this work under the direction of Libby Drake, is really a definitive display of her acting prowess, down to the "little Red Hen” display of her compulsive housekeeping in the Houston apartment. It tells the audience everything about the domestic status quo. Also, she captures the timbre of the old Southerner’s voice, albeit not every Texan nuance. There is no accent coach among the credits for this production and accents are unneven. Krystal Cave, however, as the ghastly daughter-in-law, Jessie May, captures both accent and a very complex and credible characterisation. Leighton Voight looks the part as the son, Ludie, and delivers some beautifully perceptive emotional moments, while Laura Antoniazzi, as the friend old Mrs Watts makes on trip, does what she always does when on stage, a jolly good job.  The support cast also works well and hard - some fine old talents are among them such as Ron Hoenig, very touching as the Harrison sheriff with Brian Godfrey, Megan Dansie, and Stuart Pearce filling the bill nicely indeed.


The Trip to Bountiful is a very challenging play to stage, but a play very well worth seeing. 


Old Mrs Watts is a classic character, not only of the time of the play’s setting, but of our day, too: old women who have had to lose their autonomy. Then there are inter-generational stresses expressed in the play, another universality and also, the private stress of some couples who are without issue. It is a play with a wealth of themes. It is a meaty piece of theatre one has been very glad to see.


Samela Harris


When: 23 May to 1 Jun

Where: Holden Street Theatres