In Lifetime’s remake of The Trip To Bountiful, Cicely Tyson reprises the role that won her a Tony last year: Mrs. Watts, one of playwright Horton Foote’s more memorable creations. She’s a woman whose life is not of her own making. Cramped in her son Ludie’s apartment in 1950s Houston, Mrs. Watts’ one goal is to revisit to her ancestral roots in Bountiful, a town that was beginning to decay even when she lived in it decades before. Mrs. Watts is beginning to fade herself, yet she can no longer ignore the alluring smell of salt air or the look of the sun hitting the cornstalks. She has to go home.
Part of that desire to leave is due to her daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams, also reprising her Broadway turn), who spends most of her time complaining about her live-in relative to her downtrodden husband (Blair Underwood). What’s an elderly woman to do but steal her pension check and run off to the bus station and back to Bountiful? On the way, Mrs. Watts meets a young army wife, Thelma (Keke Palmer), who allows her traveling companion to open up in ways that Ludie and Jessie Mae aren’t interested in hearing. Along her journey, Mrs. Watts both celebrates and laments the life that she’s lived.
The Trip To Bountiful actually has its roots in television, originating as a 1953 NBC teleplay. (Geraldine Page later broke her seven-time Oscar losing streak to take home the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Mrs. Watts in the 1985 movie version.) Despite its screen origins, this Trip To Bountiful sometimes feels confined, especially after Mrs. Watts reaches her destination. Broadway director Michael Wilson, no stranger to Foote’s work, makes his TV debut with The Trip To Bountiful, but never takes real advantage of freedom of a camera. Instead, he shoots Tyson in close-up, with half her face bathed in light, the other in darkness. It’s representative of the tone as a whole: Despite the melancholy nature of the play itself, Wilson sees hope in returning to Bountiful, even if Mrs. Watts doesn’t get what she came for.
Tyson is characteristically fabulous, able to subtly translate her performance from stage to screen and taking advantage of those close-ups to portray the melancholy pain that has been a constant in Mrs. Watts’ life. When she sings hymns, she fills the frame with joy; when she dolefully discusses the husband Mrs. Watts never loved, her face projects profound sadness. Williams plays Jessie Mae broadly, which can be distracting in the confines of the screen. But Jessie Mae is a caricature to begin with, constantly harping on her mother-in-law’s selfishness, a characteristic that pervades her own life. The real surprise is Underwood’s Ludie, a man who comes to realize how much of failure his life is. Underwood is such a charming actor that it’s rare to catch him in these downtrodden moments, but he leaves no traces of the sly charmers he’s best known for—especially in Ludie’s final discussion with his mother.
Lifetime has made a habit of adapting traditionally white-casted plays for all-black casts, such as its 2012 Steel Magnolias remake with Queen Latifah. Like its predecessor, The Trip To Bountiful largely skirts its racial overtones—just as Wilson’s stage version did. Mrs. Watts must sit in the “Colored” waiting room of the bus station, but that’s as overt as it gets. The lack of racial discussion only feels anachronistic when the kindly white sheriff (Clancy Brown) in 1950s rural Texas goes to great lengths to assist Mrs. Watts; not to say that every rural Texan in the ’50s was racist, but the prevailing segregation of the era isn’t even felt in the scene. The play itself has little room for this type of conversation: It’s focused on Mrs. Watts’ personal journey home, her escape from the small bubble she’s come to know. As it is, it’s wonderful to watch Tyson make that escape.