That window in Horton Foote's plaintive The Trip to Bountiful, now enjoying an extended run by Signature Theatre Off-Broadway (to Feb. 19), grows wider and wider as Tony Award nominee Lois Smith activates the weighted Carrie to escape the present and journey to her old hometown, the Bountiful of the title.
Audiences and critics are calling Smith's work one of the not-to-miss performances of the season. Men have tears in their eyes when Carrie (over the course of 24 hours) arrives at her dilapidated destination, spying scissor tails flitting across the Texas sky. Smith discussed the process of creating Carrie — a character she has graduated to after more than 50 years in the business. (Her first Broadway job was the 1952-53 season.)
Playbill.com: As I get older, I appreciate Horton Foote's plays more and more. I seem to appreciate the plaintive characters now that I have a little life experience.
Lois Smith: I have a feeling that's true of a lot of people.
Playbill.com: His work, especially Bountiful, is a little like Chekhov…
LS: It is, in that it's so simple — in the sense that the characters are deeply written…
Playbill.com: Some people look at Horton Foote's work and think he's writing about a very specific community — a Christian, small-town, Texas — but I was struck by how universal this play is: The pull toward "home" and the past, youth and love. What about the play speaks most strongly to you?
LS: Whenever you're in a rich play you keep on finding things. It surprises you over and over. I think the character of Carrie Watts goes through a lot of understanding of her own view of life. What you were just talking about: As you get older you see your own life in a different way. Even though it's this day and a half of life, she sees a lot. That's really what it's all about: Looking at her life and her striving to get what she wants, to recapture or revisit. What happens is many different things, it seems to me, in that day and a half. She keeps finding out what her life was, what it is now, and what she has to make of it. She had to revisit the whole story, not just the cramped, sorry fix she was in at the moment. Playbill.com: Do you get the sense that she, in her old age, is aware that she's "getting closer to God"?
LS: She certainly thinks about getting closer to death. That certainly is part of it.
Playbill.com: Her mortality is in her mind.
LS: This is really one of the prods that says "there isn't any time to waste." I feel sometimes in this production, too, the way it moves — the way [director] Harris Yulin has designed it so fluidly — [there's a] sense that the journey to Bountiful was also this journey in her head, and to God, or to the end of her life. That seems to be manifested in the way that the trip moves — the way the scenery moves, the way Carrie Watts moves through the transitions. I don't know whether that's true from the outside — I wish I could see it from the outside.
Playbill.com: Considering there are three distinct sections — Houston, the journey and Bountiful — it's very fluid and seamless, the production.
LS: This was written as a three-act play. It was produced that way in 1953 [following its start as a TV drama]. I know in a recent production a few years ago it was played with an intermission — there's been lots of productions and I suppose lots of different ways. But Horton really wanted it to be done without an intermission, and I'm so glad we're doing it that way. It really does flow. The sense of "journey" is very strong...
Playbill.com: Do you imagine the future of your characters once the curtain goes down?
LS: Horton talked one day when we were working on Bountiful and trying to discover what its shape is, in the last scene, and he was very adamant that nothing's resolved. When she's looking for the scissortail, it's not: "Oh, wonderful! I finally saw it!" She's going back [to Houston], but are they going to get along? Yes, it'll probably be better for a while but it's not as if there won't ever be more arguments. It's not as if there is a resolution to this family's [tensions]. They've come a long way, and something has happened. Despite some of her words — "I'm never gonna fight again," "I've had my trip, I'm satisfied" — there's truth in all that. But at the same time, one just proceeds day to day. It was interesting to have [Horton Foote] talk about that, because the tendency is to want to make something resolved.
Playbill.com: But something is satisfied in her.
LS: Oh, yes! There is a satisfaction. As she says to [son] Ludie when she first sees him there at the end, "I got my wish." That's important. Very important.
Playbill.com: Circumstances motivate characters in so much of every drama we see. If Carrie was living happily with daughter-in-law Jessie Mae and Ludie in a big, open house in the country, if the situation were different, this need to travel back might not be there…
LS: I think the need is still there. The need to go Bountiful before she dies is strong. I think what kicks it off in this drama — it's going to be today, by golly — is the fight [with Jessie Mae], and the realization that there isn't any more time. I always felt, when I was first studying the play and working, that the relationship with Jessie Mae is invigorating, in a certain way. It's horrible but it's also invigorating: She's got something to fight against. That is what, in a way, catapults her out of the house this day.
Playbill.com: Jessie Mae is her opposite in many ways, but they share so much frustration, and they're both kind of stuck.
LS: That's right. They're both in an awful fix. And they both want something that is not strange to want. Poor Jessie Mae would like to have a life with her husband without this intruder. I notice that older women very often will say, "Oh, I hate Jessie Mae!" But I think there are also people who say, "I see, equally, Ludie and Jessie Mae and Carrie Watts, the fix they're in."
Playbill.com: The Trip to Bountiful is set in the Gulf Coast of Texas. Do you try to imagine the heat — the humidity — of the area when preparing for this role? Do you think on the physical world of the play?
LS: There are some indications about the nature of the heat and how it feels to be there, and she refers to it a lot. I don't think I've investigated that much. The text certainly brings that up. I guess when you're fully focused on something [as Carrie is], you may miss what the weather is doing…
Playbill.com: Did you think on the women in your past, women of faith in your life, when creating Carrie?
LS: Oh, definitely. Aunts and acquaintances. And my mother, who was certainly not this woman. There are many strong things — my mother is much in my mind. My daughter, who saw it, felt the presence of my mother in it a lot, too.