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John Kuppich, left, and Bev Raske appear in a scene from "A Trip to Bountiful." (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

'Trip to Bountiful' inspiring, fulfilling; stage production in Willmar, Minn.

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WILLMAR - In The Barn Theatre's new play, "A Trip to Bountiful," three family members feel trapped by the meaninglessness of their lives and deal with it in their own ways. This is award-winning playwright Horton Foote's best-known play, like Tennessee Williams' "Glass Menagerie," and for many of the same reasons.

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After the failure of her beloved Gulf Coast farm near the small town of Bountiful, Carrie has been living for 20 years with her son and daughter-in-law in a three-room Houston apartment. She longs to go back to Bountiful before her heart condition causes her death.

Son Ludie had to leave a good job during a two-year illness that consumed the family savings. He has now taken a new job that pays just enough so that, with his mother's Social Security check, he can pay the bills. Daughter-in-law Jessie Mae, forced to stay at home as a mid-'50s wife, has no outlet for her nervous energy except to chafe at her role of caretaker, constantly criticizing Carrie and begging Ludie for a magazine or a Coke.

When Carrie escapes to the bus station and buys a ticket to the town nearest Bountiful, a lovely young army wife, a ticket agent and a kindly sheriff help her. In the central role of Carrie, Bev Raske has the range to play a captive elder, a nervous escapee and a woman raging against life's injustices. Her performance becomes luminous as she returns to the scene of her younger years.

J.P. Cola artfully shows us a Ludie torn between the roles of responsive husband, dutiful son and breadwinner. At first he seems ineffectual, but Cola shows us that this is really the essential kindness of Ludie's nature. It is Stacey Neuhaus, as Jessie May, who gives much of the play its emotional energy, scolding and harassing Carrie and Ludie in controlling binds that would be hilarious, if only Carrie and Jessie May could see them. The other actors, especially Stacey O'Brien as the army wife who travels with Carrie, effectively support the milieu and action.

Director Merica Overcash keeps a challenging play moving well, with crew and actors working together. Overcash uses the stage ingeniously, placing the apartment scenes in the rear of the stage, curtained from the spare bus, ticket station and Bountiful scenes closer to the seats, which gives them greater intimacy and intensity. Period music is nicely juxtaposed with Jessie's favorite traditional hymn, and the crew members pull the play together well.

The characters' mild Texas accents and the '50s costumes are so effective that they fade from audience awareness after the opening scene.

The sweetness of family love in the face of daily irritations, of memories in the face of life's limitations, and of the human spirit in the face of difficulty -- Overcash and her cast and crew explore each of Foote's signature themes and use them to show the search for dignity and meaning. I think you will leave the play inspired to find them in your life too.

Katherine (Kay) Slama is a theater fan who lives between New London and Spicer and consults in behavioral health, life coaching and management, including conflict resolution.

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