Move over, you adorable scamps in "Annie." Settle down, weird girls in "Matilda." Broadway has a new unlikely heroine, a frail widow who hums hymns and has a bad heart.
A first-rate revival of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" opened Tuesday at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre determined to demonstrate that insight isn't the sole domain of the young.
A sublime Cicely Tyson returns to Broadway for the first time in 30 years to play Carrie Watts, the widow who shares a cramped two-room apartment in Houston in 1953 with her devoted son and overbearing daughter-in-law. Watts is always looking back, while her son and his wife look forward.
Watts' only desire is to revisit her old home in Bountiful and recapture the vitality and purpose she seemed to lose when she left for the big city decades ago.
"I've turned into a hateful, quarrelsome old woman. And before I leave this earth, I'd like to recover some of the dignity," she says. "The peace I used to know. For I'm going to die."
The casting here is splendid. Not only is Tyson feisty and funny and glowing with inner light, but her co-stars prove more than compelling: Vanessa Williams is politely savage as her preening daughter-in-law, icy without becoming a dragon. Cuba Gooding Jr., making his Broadway debut as her son, nails the kind man unfortunately caught in the middle of these two women. And the rising talent Condola Rashad, as a soldier's wife, turns a small role into a star turn.
Michael Wilson, a noted director of Foote and Tennessee Williams, lets the words and action flow with a genuine gentleness and respect that allows each eye roll, shuffle and sigh to have its maximum impact. The care and love all the creators have for this play pours out from the stage.
The widow Watts is not someone we must feel pity for — quite the opposite, we cheer her on. When her family is out, she strips off her pajamas to reveal a dress underneath and makes a mad escape to the bus station, and we're with her, clapping. Ditto when she persuades the sheriff (a sweet Tom Wopat) to not only release her from custody but also drive her to Bountiful.
Yes, spoiler alert, she makes it to Bountiful. Mainly because no one can deny her. In Tyson's hands, this old woman is tough, firm and hopeful. She's the kind of woman who dances with strangers at bus stations, remembers details from years ago and seems to lose decades from her face when finally in Bountiful.
That's also in large part to Jeff Cowie, whose sets absolutely sing. His cramped Houston apartment gets the point across by having no wall between the young couple and the widow, and his cross-section of a bus in front of a starry sky is visually clever.
But his biggest challenge is the ramshackle home in Bountiful — it has to be something worth the trip. Cowie does exactly that with a comforting, if rotting, Victorian complete with flowers and overgrown grass. Rui Rita's lighting gives it a heavenly glow.
Foote's plays are often deceptively simple, cherishing the common, small-town man, and "The Trip to Bountiful" is no exception. It's about the buried desire to go back home, about finding grace and about keeping a connection to your roots, universal themes proved by the fact that a predominantly black cast has slipped into a play originally played by whites.
With so many noisy kids on Broadway these days dreaming of running away from their horrible lives, it's funny to be talking about a woman nearing the end of her life doing the same. In this case, though, Watts wants to return to the past, and your heart may sing like she does when she finally reaches her goal: "I'm home, I'm home. I'm home."