Unlike many later Horton Foote plays, his 1953 work The Trip to Bountiful has a propulsively linear narrative. An elderly woman (Lois Smith), enduring life in a cramped Houston apartment with her half-alive son (Devon Abner) and infuriating daughter-in-law (Hallie Foote), craves desperately to go back to her childhood home in a once thriving Texas farm town, now so shrunk that her last living school chum is its only resident. How she escapes her hawkeyed daughter-in-law (who craves the old lady’s Social Security check), how her journey is variously aided and hindered by those she meets on the way is Foote’s story, seemingly thin but dense-packed with multi-generational lore, told in the eerie Texas-minimalist music of his characteristically flat, echoing dialogue.
The work must take its luster from the actress embodying the central figure. Lillian Gish created the role onstage, Geraldine Page on film. At the Signature, Lois Smith proves herself their worthy successor to these hallowed names, with a performance that manages to be simultaneously feisty and moonstruck. The heroine may be, as she describes herself, “a hateful, quarrelsome old woman,” but Smith makes her unfulfilled goal as transcendent as Don Quixote’s knight-errantry. To watch her mingling of crab and saint is to feel a little of the wonder that Texas used to mean before the fake cowboys of Kennebunkport invaded.