At Ford’s Theatre, a director makes a “Trip to Bountiful” return

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Michael Wilson was a student at the University of North Carolina in the mid-1980s when he visited his sister for a weekly movie night that turned out to be anything but routine.

The selection this Friday night was the 1985 film adaptation of Horton Foote’s 1953 play “The Trip to Bountiful.” The story follows an elderly Houston woman with a desperate desire to return to her scenic hometown, but Wilson recalls that “every beat in the film rang true” for the 22-year-old himself. So in 1987, when Foote spoke at an event in Wilson’s hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the budding director approached his newfound idol with a question.

“I asked him, ‘Do you think I should do TV, film or theatre?’ said Wilson. “Of course, that’s a ridiculous question. How would he know? He doesn’t know me. And he said to me, ‘I can’t give you advice, but I can tell you that the work that I did in the theater was, for me, more fulfilling.’ ”

Reflecting on this answer from Foote, who died in 2009Wilson adds: “Horton was one of the shrewdest and shrewdest writers and artists I’ve known, and though he said he wasn’t answering, he gave an answer, isn’t- not it?”

This conversation was the start of a decades-long friendship between Foote, a famous playwright known for writing more than 50 plays (and the screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird”), and Wilson, now recognized as the main interpreter of Foote’s work. After leading a 50th anniversary production of “The Trip to Bountiful” at Houston’s Alley Theater in 2003, directing a 2013 Broadway revival with Cicely Tyson, and directing a 2014 TV version, Wilson returned to “Bountiful” a again – this time to lead a new production through October 16 at Ford’s Theatre.

“I was surprised he came on board, because he did,” says Nancy Robinette, who plays the central role of Carrie Watts. “He understands so well the richness of the play world and play culture, and the play’s potential to bring out empathy.”

Robinette wasn’t the only one who thought Wilson wouldn’t be interested; the director also thought his 2014 visit to “Bountiful” was his last. To sum up his thoughts at the time, he quotes a sentence from Mrs. Watts: “I have made my journey. It’s more than enough to keep me happy the rest of my life.

But when Robinette and Ford’s theater manager Paul R. Tetreault — who, as general manager of the Alley, had worked on the staging of “Bountiful” in 2003 — approached Wilson about revisiting the play, he embraced the idea. With his mother now in his mid-80s, Wilson says he relates to the character of Ludie, Mrs. Watts’ protective son, in new ways. Although the production was originally slated for a 2020 broadcast, he thinks “Bountiful” and its themes of nostalgia for a bygone era are all the more compelling amid the pandemic.

“It’s been a comfort to me, right now, to be working on the piece,” Wilson said. “Now my life situation has helped illuminate how I can help actors penetrate these characters.”

To avoid recreating or echoing his previous work, Wilson says he doesn’t use his Broadway guest book — a main script complete with technical clues and actor blocking — and has decided not to. review archival footage of this production or its television. film. Rui Rita, the new production’s lighting designer, is a veteran of the Broadway run, but Tim Mackabee’s set and Ivania Stack’s mid-century costumes come from fresh perspectives.

The actors also bring new perspectives. Robinette, a DC theater luminary with four decades of experience on area stages, is joined by local favorites Joe Mallon as Ludie and Kimberly Gilbert as Jessie Mae, Carrie’s overbearing stepdaughter. . Explaining that the three most important words for a director are “I don’t know,” Wilson says he made a conscious effort in the rehearsal room to let his actors explore their characters and not share his own experience too much with them. the room.

“He has a wonderful energy and keeps us on our toes, and he seems to enjoy the new things we bring to the room,” Robinette says. “So it’s a nice combination, to have someone who has worked on it, knows it and is still looking for it themselves. He’s rediscovering it with us, and that’s kind of exciting.

‘The Trip to Bountiful’ isn’t Foote’s only project on Wilson’s plate: He’s working on a musical based on Foote’s Oscar-winning script for the 1983 film ‘Tender Mercies’, with a book by Daisy Foote, the playwright’s daughter, and music by Steve Earle. Wilson also hints that he would love to adapt Orphans’ Home Cycle – a trilogy of Foote plays he directed off Broadway in 2009 and 2010 – for television.

But first: a detour to “Bountiful,” 35 years after that fateful interaction with Foote in Winston-Salem.

“I had no idea then, in 1987, not only that most of my life would be artistically, professionally, and personally defined by my relationship with this writer, but also with this particular piece,” Wilson says. “‘The Trip to Bountiful’ is going to be around for a long time, and it has truly proven to be one of Horton Foote’s deserving lasting legacies.”

Ford Theater, 511 10th St NW. 202-347-4833. fords.org.

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