Human beings are the only creatures, as far as we know, who can imagine better lives for themselves and then try to make those situations happen. These dreams -- fulfilled, denied, or postponed -- make us the fascinating life forms we are. And the best part is, the dreams don't have to be enormous to be enthralling.
Half a century ago, Horton Foote wrote The Trip to Bountiful about three average Texas folks sharing a Houston apartment, along with their separate dreams: The elderly mother, Carrie Watts, longs to visit her childhood home in Bountiful one more time; her middle-aged son, Ludie, pines for both children and a raise at work; and his wife, Jessie Mae, just wants to rule her domestic roost and go see a flick now and then. These dreams are modest by anyone's standards, but they take on a fabulous glow in the hands of three terrific actors in Ensemble Theatre's current production.
Bernice Bolek is Carrie, sitting in her rocking chair late at night, her head tilted so she can stare out the window and picture herself on the family farm not so far away. She's tried to run away before, but she always gets caught at the train station and brought back; now she bounces from wall to wall in a mincing jog -- a geriatric version of a caged tiger yearning for its freedom. Bolek's lined face is a treasure map in which we can see Carrie's fears and hopes as they spark and fade. Jessie Mae, played by Meg Kelly Schroeder, is a harpy who spends her days drinking Coke at the drugstore and nagging her mother-in-law about her constant hymn-singing while trying to locate the old lady's most recent pension check. Caught between these two women is Ludie -- given a softly exhausted melancholy by Mark Cipra -- a man who knows all too well who he is and where he belongs.
While Foote's three-acter is gently revelatory and amusing in places, it would be a long slog if those three key roles weren't filled by accomplished performers. But under the experienced direction of Lucia Colombi (she and Ensemble did this show 12 years ago), the quietly dysfunctional Watts family rivets your attention. Schroeder never turns Jessie Mae into a stereotyped harridan, even though the barbs she launches at both Carrie and Ludie are frequently tipped with poison. Meanwhile, Cipra carefully modulates his reactions and doesn't allow his character to become a helpless schlub. The only disappointing scene is an overly rushed moment when Ludie breaks down and cries in his mother's lap.
As good as they are, Mother Watts is the heart of the story, and Bolek is equal to the task. Once Carrie escapes the apartment, Bolek is by turns endearing and inspiring in her encounters with a fellow traveler (a tender Celeste Cosentino) and a helpful sheriff as she wends her way back home. And once there, her face lights up with such transcendent joy, it's absolutely contagious.