Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful - which is opening the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's 2008 season on an awfully sweet note - is a lovely piece of theatre, but it's such an earnest, delicate little play that it requires all the effrontery and sass it can get.
Let's hear it, then, for Jean Lupoli, who takes what could've been a shrill, one-note caricature and fills it with such winning good humor and welcome meanness that she's utterly irresistible; despite much fine work by her co-stars, the production is practically unimaginable without her. The actress, so fresh and funny, gives Foote's small-scale, big-hearted elegy a true shot in the arm, and in all honesty, it frequently needs one.
Carrie Watts (Sandy Stoltenberg), an elderly Texan trapped in a three-room trailer with her well-meaning, ineffectual son, Ludie (Kevin Maynard), and his prickly, complaining wife, Jessie Mae (Lupoli), wants desperately to escape her confines and return to her childhood home of Bountiful, a feat that is made nearly impossible by Jessie Mae's refusal to let Carrie - or, more specifically, Carrie's pension check - out of her sight. Bountiful's first act finds the older woman furtively planning a getaway while we register the disappointing drabness of the trio's collective situation, and in director Gary Baker's production, their lives are explored with the unhurried deliberation of real life.
Perhaps too unhurried. At Friday's performance, the actors delivered their lines in a nicely relaxed tempo; their characters' dialogue felt, as it should, like conversations the trio had engaged in a thousand times before. Yet there was continual, distracting dead air between the lines of dialogue. Some of this could be attributed to opening-night nerves, as both acts found the actors jumping their cues and having to occasionally repeat sentences, but more often it was because the stage action was impeding the show's rhythm.
Bits of business such as Carrie setting up a table for breakfast or Jessie Mae taking curlers out of her hair made you understand why stage life generally moves more quickly than life - an audience tends to grow impatient when it doesn't - and Foote's first-act preamble is already so heavy with exposition that the methodical realism of the pacing here, accidental or otherwise, only underscores just how little there is to The Trip to Bountiful - a woman plans to take a trip, and then takes a trip. (Although I admit to occasionally wishing for even more reality; on Friday, characters failed to notice a suitcase sitting in plain view, and at one point, Jessie Mae grabbed a hot tea kettle out of Carrie's hands ... by the spout.)
Yet while this sort of halting momentum would be deadly in a slapstick farce, it isn't all that bothersome in an agreeable slice-of-life drama, and besides, this Bountiful has more than enough appeal to glide you past its doldrums. Some of its success is purely Foote's doing; his throwaway witticisms, such as the information that Jessie Mae feels hymns have "gone out of style," are wonderfully unexpected, and much of his dialogue is peppered with delightful small-town vernacular. (Jessie Mae disparages Carrie by muttering, "She's acting silent.") But Playcrafters' production does the play justice; Craig Michaels' sound design and Baker's set are particularly clever, and the show boasts a sextet of appealing portrayals.
It's been a true pleasure watching Maynard grow in confidence and ability with each new role, and in his performance as Ludie, he creates a wholly believable, mildly depressed middle-aged doormat. Despite being clad in an ill-conceived Bobby-soxer outfit, Kathy Heckman is marvelously empathetic - and a great deadpan comedienne - as a fellow traveler, while Lisa Kahn lends her beguiling ease and radiant smile to a pair of bus-stop employees. And the natural eccentricity and oddly emphatic line readings of the similarly double-cast Tom Betts shake up the show's rhythms to amusing effect - I'm never quite sure what the actor is up to on stage, but whatever it is, I hope he doesn't change it.
Stoltenberg, meanwhile, attacks her demanding lead with zest - so much zest, in truth, that it threatens to overshadow the role. (Running around with fists flying, she's almost mechanically animated - a Wind-Up Granny.) But even when you don't quite believe Stoltenberg, you always like her; she's filled with happy mischief, delivers her youthful reminiscences with alertness and elation, and she's especially enjoyable during her battles of will with Lupoli.
It's hard to fathom who wouldn't be. Divinely self-infatuated and able to toss off insults with casual (comedic) cruelty, Lupoli displays the sort of unfussy talent that makes everyone surrounding her look good, too. (When asked if they've spoken with Jessie Mae, the other characters respond with a weary, hysterical "Yes ... "; her presence is so robust that you giggle at her even when she's not around.) Playcrafters' The Trip to Bountiful is filled with pleasures, but Lupoli deserves a special brava; it takes skill to make a character you'd want to throttle in real life emerge as someone who's never around nearly enough.
For tickets, call (309) 762-0330.