ALBANY, N.Y. >> We first see Thelma in the waiting room of a bus station in Houston. It is summer, 1953, and she is traveling to her parents' home to stay with them while her husband is overseas. As played by Danyel Fulton in Capital Repertory Theatre's generally superficial, emotionally unconvincing production of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful," there is a certain serenity about her and yet, even as she remarks at one point to her unintentional traveling companion on the bus ride from Houston to Harrison, "I love my husband," there is a gnawing, aching sense of something unsaid; a story intentionally left untold.
Thelma's genuine kindness and warmth, her generosity of spirit and compassion wraps around the elderly runaway woman, Mrs. Carrie Watts (Barbara N. Howard), whom Thelma befriends at the Houston bus terminal and shepherds until they part company in the dead of night at Harrison where Thelma transfers to another bus and Carrie waits until morning to reach her ultimate destination, Bountiful, her family home which she hasn't seen in 15 years and which she remembers with longing and fondness and is determined to visit one more time before her death.
Thelma is a "secondary" character in "The Trip to Bountiful" but the fact that she resonates so effectively and lastingly in Fulton's fully rounded, richly detailed and nuanced performance is an indication of just how much is missing in a production that too easily settles for attitudes, physical and vocal ticks, imitations of heartfelt moments that seem unmoored to anything anchored in emotional authenticity and substance.
Carrie, a widow, is caught in an untenable situation. She's been sharing a modest apartment in Houston with her go-along-to-get-along son, Ludie (credibly played by Kevin Craig West) and her irritating, self-centered daughter-in-law, Jesse Mae (a childish, shallow creation by Sandrina Renee whose vocal affectations bounce between high-pitched fingernails-on-a-blackboard squeal to a lower, easier-on-the-ears conversational tone before bouncing back up to the squeals).
They've been in this situation for 15 years. You can imagine the conversations that must have taken place between Ludie and Jesse Mae Foote imagines about taking Carrie in. The loss of that argument, the implications for privacy and the economics of the household (neither of which seem to inform Renee's portrayal), heighten the dynamics in the relationship among these three as Ludie, in his ineffectual manner, tries to broker an uneasy truce between his mother and his wife while struggling, at the same time, to earn a decent living.
Renee's Jesse Mae retreats behind petulance, bullying, temper tantrums and childish impulses. She uses Carrie's monthly pension checks as her own resource and commands the household like a spoiled brat.
Carrie does her best to stay out of Jesse Mae's way. Ill at ease not only in the aiartment but in the big city as well, Carrie has tried to run away to Bountiful before but this time, she succeeds in making it all the way to the old, decaying homestead before Ludie and Jesse Mae catch up with her.
With a smile that never seems to fade, Howard paints Carrie with an unyielding, sunny hopefulness optimism. When, in the second act, Carrie releases everything she's held in for so long, it's an outpouring with no foundation. It rests on nothing solid. When, for example, Carrie, who was forced by her father give up the man she loved and marry someone she didn't, expresses a kind of envy for the love Thelma says she bears her husband, there is no sense of loss, residual pain, even for a fleeting moment. It is little more than lip service; as artificial and forced as her manner of skittering around the apartment (running, Jesse Mae calls it) like a wind-up toy. The one rock Carrie has is her faith and particularly hymns. Howard has a powerful, rich, expressive, disciplined singing voice which she uses to show-stopping effect, in more ways than one.
With the exception of Carrie's outburst, Howard's measured performance comes closest to emotional credibility once Carrie reaches the old homestead (evocatively designed by Jared W. Rutherford), especially in a nicely crafted, affecting scene with a local sheriff (an effective Tony Pallone), who has done the right thing by her and driven Carrie the 12 miles from Harrison to Bountiful.
It's an honesty that is hard won in the emotionally deceptive climate on the Capital Repertory Theatre stage. But, like the crops and livestock that were nurtured by the once richly fertile soil in and around Bountiful, it is an honesty that dries, withers and left to seed. seed.
What: "The Trip to Bountiful" by Horton Foote. Directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill
With: Barbara N. Howard, Kevin Craig West, Sadrina Renee, Danyel Fulton, Sheilah London-Miller, Josh Powell, Tony Pallone
Designers: Jared W. Rutherford, sets; Barbara A. Bell, costumes; Travis McHale, lighting; Janie Bullard, sound; David Bova, wigs; Josh D. Smith, music supervisor
Who: Capital Repertory Theatre
Where: 111 N. Pearl St., Albany, N.Y.
When: Now through May 15. Evenings — Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Wednesday and Sunday at 2; Saturday at 3
Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes