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THEATER REVIEW: Take this ‘Trip’ for the story, not the scenery

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The Actors’ Ensemble production of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” at the new PS21 black box theater in Chatham includes Fern Sloan (Carrie Watts) and Joey Sorge (Ludie). The remaining performances are Saturday, June 8 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m. Photo by Deirdre Malfatto

“The Trip to Bountiful” / PS21

ACTRESS FERN SLOAN of Actors’ Ensemble is on my “go see her in anything” list. This time she is Carrie Watts, an old woman flirting with end-days, trapped and plagued by daughter-in-law abuse. She feels compelled to escape for a last journey to Bountiful, the small, disappearing Texas town of her youth.

Sloan extracts meaning and personhood from all her roles. Beauty is hers too—from large wide-set eyes that live a long, narrow distance from her toes, to two big expressive hands in between. Beauty. And she doesn’t even need it.

The play is satisfyingly, appropriately slow. It is like lava pushing people down the mountain. They scrape against one another and comfort and listen to one another on the way.

They are mostly people who easily connect with strangers. They share their personal stories and readily talk and touch in a way we can barely remember today, in spite of our huggy habits. The play is set in 1950. Was it like that in 1950? In Texas or anywhere? Maybe.

As Carrie’s son Ludie, Joey Sorge matches Sloan in stage-ease and truth. Together they are casting perfection. Admirable work is also forthcoming in supporting roles.

That’s all good, though I question certain choices by director Ted Pugh:

1. For this play the stage looks minimal, the lighting cool-to-cold, and the Act II sets are so empty that lugubriousness threatens to overwhelm the play’s warmth and strength. Actors’ Ensemble productions are always spare—by good choice, I think; but. . . .

2. In style, the character of daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (played by Bethany Caputo) obeyed a powerful esthetic but one radically different from the rest of the play. Her staging, razor-sharp delivery, and physical stops and starts were coming from a modern place where Horton Foote might not be willing to go. Around here, audiences have seen actress Caputo before. We are familiar with her talent, craft, and range. She can do most anything. All one needs to do is ask her.

3. Sometimes actor-fast-talk seems more New York than Texas in the ’50s.

4. Unless the theater is on fire, curtain speeches (in my opinion) ought to be barred from all play performances–even the very civilized one that happens before “The Trip to Bountiful.” Seldom does a curtain speech accomplish anything; and, after all, “the play’s the thing.”

In spite of those cavils, Actors’ Ensemble is to be cherished. You will not find better plays or better acting anywhere. (Well, down the road a piece David Anderson and company is also impressive. Fortunately, actors flow readily between the two groups.)

“The Trip to Bountiful” runs one more weekend in the Black Box at PS21 in Chatham. (It would be nice for the Ensemble to find a permanent home there.) For tickets, click on ps21chatham.org.

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