Three obstinate females—one fictional and two historical—dominated my theatergoing last week. Tenacious women make great showy roles for leading actresses, and also seem to have a stimulating effect on male writers: Medea and Tosca, Mistress Quickly and Mrs. Warren, Dolly Levi and Maggie the Cat all sprang from masculine imaginations. In plays by women, who see the female mind from inside, the woman at the center is more often vacillating or self-doubting. Men, stuck with the external gaze, focus on the determination that masks the doubt.
Mrs. Carrie Watts (Cicely Tyson), the heroine of Horton Foote’s 1953 play The Trip to Bountiful (Sondheim Theatre), has flickering doubts, but conquers them on her way to her simple goal. Raised and married in a tiny Texas town called Bountiful, she’s been trapped for over a dozen years in a claustrophobic flat in noisy Houston, with her son, Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams). Getting back to Bountiful, for reasons even she doesn’t fully understand, is her one desire.
Self-centered, pleasure-loving Jessie Mae, on whom Carrie’s compulsive housecleaning and hymn-singing piety constantly grate in the close quarters, would gladly let her go. But the family has suffered reversals and can’t make ends meet without Carrie’s Social Security check. Getting back to Bountiful, once thriving but now almost deserted, is a hopeless dream.
Or would be, but determined women of Carrie’s age, whose bodies tell them they have no time to lose, can be both quick and clever. Dodging Jessie Mae’s watchful eye, Carrie manages to hop on a bus. Her trip offers many setbacks and a few desolating shocks, but some alleviations as well. Never glossing over life’s darkness, Foote balances its harsh truths against the kindnesses that offset them.
Carrie strikes up a friendship with a young military wife (Condola Rashad) heading home to live with her parents while her husband is shipped overseas. (The Korean War goes unmentioned, but the young woman is tense with worry.) In Harrison, the bus stop nearest Bountiful, Carrie must confront bad news, and also finds help from a kindly ticket agent (the venerable Arthur French) and a considerate local sheriff (Tom Wopat). People who associate rural Texas exclusively with brutality and bigotry may find the graciousness of Wopat’s performance surprising; Texans, knowing better, probably won’t.
The Bountiful that Carrie finally reaches is an abandoned ruin, the opposite of its name. The astute playwright lets his heroine face this unappealing future with equanimity—an unexpected extra layer of the resourceful obduracy that helped her escape. Michael Wilson’s direction, never lagging, shapes each scene in a gentle, unhurried arc, letting Tyson bring a gleeful fervor to every moment, seemingly as happy to be back onstage, after decades away, as her character is to be on that bus. Once or twice, almost impishly, she signals how much fun she’s having, but for the most part, her performance is a sustained delight, rich in energy, detail, organically produced sorrow, and immaculately timed humor. She’s wonderfully seconded, too, on all sides: Rashad conveying sweet, nuanced pathos; Williams giving a full, sharp-toned mixture of comedy and pained vulnerability. Gooding, brand-new to the stage, uses his mike-bred vocal limitations to shade a convincing three-dimensional portrait.
Imelda Marcos was no small-town girl to start with, and once she had moved to Manila, never dreamed of the small-town life back home. A child of the oligarchy that still controls the Philippines, she vested her dreams in international jet-setting, showy new buildings, and innumerable pairs of designer shoes. The shoes, like the affluent origins, go strangely unmentioned in Here Lies Love (Public), the flashy, lively, tuneful new musical in which songwriter David Byrne and director Alex Timbers purport to tell the tale of how Imelda and her president-turned-dictator husband rose to power, abused it, and duly fell.
The triple whammy of iron-fisted totalitarianism, near-universal economic corruption, and multimillion-dollar shopping sprees became too much even for the Marcoses’ Western trading partners to tolerate. World opinion compelled an election; Marcos’s underlings worsened matters by assassinating his principal opponent, “Ninoy” Aquino (a former beau of Imelda’s). Aquino’s widow, Cory, won the election; democracy returned, shakily, to the Philippines. The U.S. military airlifted the Marcoses to safety.
Byrne and his collaborators (Fatboy Slim and others contributed to the score) supply only the basic outlines of this story; they’re more interested in setting it in dance-club motion. And why complain, since their musical medium isn’t really suitable for dramatizing politics and economics anyway? Timbers sets the show on rolling platforms around which most of the audience stands, disco-style, dancing and clapping along to the steady drive of Byrne’s appealing rhythms. The evening’s broad strokes, both in staging and musically, are often extremely effective: There’s a particularly nifty one when unplugged democracy finally supplants the amplified pulsations.
Here Lies Love never conveys, though, what attracted Byrne and his colleagues to this particular story—or why they should seemingly strive, by downplaying the differences between the two ladies, to stress its similarity to Evita. Musically, to my taste, Byrne’s work is far superior. And although the show’s substance frequently vanishes inside its dance-party exhilaration, it’s clear that serious, intelligent effort has gone into creating the hoopla. The heartfelt, flamboyant performances prove that too, especially Ruthie Ann Miles’s Imelda and Conrad Ricamora’s Ninoy. Some quality of Philippine society must provoke analogies to club life: Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, produced by the Public in 2001, also viewed Imelda through a disco prism.
The life of super-agent Sue Mengers (Bette Midler), as playwright John Logan describes it in I’ll Eat You Last (Booth Theatre), resembled an evening-long gossip column, all name-dropping, varied with snide one-liners and celebrity anecdotes. Logan arranges his overfamiliar material neatly; Joe Mantello’s production deploys it skillfully. Midler’s Mengers, lolling throughout on her couch, never resembles an actual human being, or even a Hollywood agent. As formalized and distant as Kabuki, it’s nonetheless an immaculately turned performance.