Cicely Tyson stars "The Trip to Bountiful." (Bob Mahoney / Lifetime )
Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" is a deceptively small story.
An elderly woman named Carrie Watts, living a stifling and increasingly marginalized existence with her son and daughter-in-law, is determined to return to her tiny hometown in the South. And so one day she does, escaping the bonds of age and family to board a bus headed toward Bountiful, Texas.
There are few roles available to women of a certain age, fewer still that allow such performers to wield the subtle but symphonic skills that can only be acquired through a lifetime of fine acting. Lillian Gish played Carrie in the original 1953 teleplay, Geraldine Page won an Oscar for her portrayal in the 1985 film.
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Last year, Cicely Tyson took Carrie to Broadway and won a Tony. And on Saturday, Tyson and some of the Broadway cast bring "The Trip to Bountiful" back to its own hometown, television. It's an exquisitely rendered and masterfully acted film on Lifetime, and hand to God, this is one you don't want to miss.
It's a two-hour prose poem in which hope emerges from the dank mulch of regret and blooms tough and ecstatic like a brilliant roadside flower. The film opens with Carrie (Tyson) wheeling home groceries in a wagon and then preparing supper for her son Ludie (Blair Underwood) and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams).
In a few deft strokes, the characters are established — Carrie, maternal, spiritually rigorous and stubborn; Jessie Mae, impatient, frustrated and dismissive of her mother in law; and Ludie, loving to each but see-sawing between divided loyalties.
And so it goes: Jessie Mae doesn't like all of Carrie's hymn-singing and mildly disruptive presences; Ludie, having returned to work after being laid up for two years, is worried about asking for a raise; and Carrie just wants to go home to Bountiful, where she can feel the forces that once rooted her to this planet.
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Since no one wants to take her, Carrie, though frail and plagued with a heart problem, has attempted to go on her own. This "running off" has resulted only in increased annoyance and suspicion on Jessie Mae's part, until this day.
On this day, Carrie manages to make it to the bus station, where she befriends a young woman named Thelma (Keke Palmer), eludes her pursuing family and boards a bus headed toward Bountiful, now a town so small it doesn't merit its own bus stop.
Along the way, she speaks to Thelma of her life, an ordinary life of tragedy and triumph, winding down now in a way that doesn't quite suit her; if she can just get to Bountiful, she can reclaim something she remembers as joy.
Underwood and Williams are eloquent and fine, but this is Carrie's story. With her shining ageless eyes and effortless physical grace, Tyson is quietly but relentlessly hypnotic in all she does — whether it's the sprinkling of salt, the fumbling for correct change or an exuberant rendition of "Blessed Assurance."
This Carrie is quieter than Page's. She's more rooted in patience, but no less determined and certainly no less powerful. Tyson's voice is soft but precise, carrying the cadence of Foote's lushly simple dialogue forward in a way that undulates, like a field of ripe wheat, all the way to the horizon.
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It remains a simple tale, "The Trip to Bountiful." Nothing is revealed but the inevitable impact of time, on the land and on our lives.
Memory is not truth, but it is what haunts us and sustains us. It's a force that can straighten us against the sky or crush us against the earth. In the end, Carrie tells us, the role memory plays is our choice, and perhaps the most important choice we make in this life.