'The Trip to Bountiful' review: Cicely Tyson is radiant

This theater publicity image released by The Hartman

This theater publicity image released by The Hartman Group shows Vanessa Williams, left, Cicely Tyson, center, and Cuba Gooding Jr., during a performance of "The Trip to Bountiful" at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York. (Credit: AP Photo / Joan Marcus)

Sentimental journeys don't come much more bittersweet than "The Trip to Bountiful," the wistful Horton Foote serio-comedy that lured Cicely Tyson back to Broadway for the first time in 30 years.

This is lovely news. Tyson, whose significant career has been carved mostly in movies and TV, is radiant, shrewd and utterly natural onstage as Mrs. Carrie Watts, the elderly woman stuck in a two-room Houston flat with her ineffectual son and his ambitious, selfish wife.

With Cuba Gooding Jr., as her sweet, underachieving son, Ludie, and Vanessa Williams as mean Jessie Mae, director Michael Wilson's revival has both the wattage and the affection necessary to make this version feel as if Foote could have written his 1953 play for them.

This is not to say the production explores enough of the sad subtext that lurks beneath this story of a dislocated old woman desperate to return to Bountiful, the farm town, now a ghost town, where she was raised.

There is plenty of heartache when she pleads to her son, "Please, I want to go home." But Wilson seems conflicted about whether to stress the cruelty in Carrie's situation or to keep things light. Thus, Williams plays a real gorgon as the daughter-in-law, not just an overdressed, bored beauty obsessed with getting her hair done and going to the picture show. She actually treats Carrie as a servant, expecting her to clean and even help dress her.

So it's hard not to loathe her, and to hate Ludie for letting her abuse his mother like this. Meanwhile, although Tyson's Carrie throws Jessie Mae lots of dirty looks behind her back, the effect is more comic than deservedly hateful.

Still, we root for her escape, which, in Jeff Cowie's handsomely evocative sets, takes her to bus stations with waiting rooms and water fountains labeled "colored only." The supporting cast is abundant with good actors in small roles -- including rising star Condola Rashad as the kindly young friend on the bus, Tom Wopat as the kindly sheriff and Arthur French as the kindly station worker.

Tyson, who has said she admired this play since she saw Geraldine Page in the 1985 movie, says she told her agent, "get me my 'Trip to Bountiful' and I'll retire." Better, perhaps she'll make Broadway home.

WHAT "The Trip to Bountiful"

WHERE Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St.

INFO $37-$142; 212-239-6200; thetriptobountifulbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Tyson radiant in handsome, if not heartbreaking, revival.

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