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It's been 30 years since Jean Shelton has performed on stage. I don't know if the Method actor-turned-celebrated acting coach suffered a Daniel Day-Lewis moment during her turn as Martha in a 1970s production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Day-Lewis also a proponent of the Method school collapsed during a performance of Hamlet after allegedly seeing the ghost of his own father), but Shelton, like Day-Lewis, has stayed away from the boards ever since.
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Up until now, that is. Actors Theatre's production of Horton Foote's 1953 The Trip to Bountiful marks her return to the stage. The play is a poetic choice for Shelton's comeback. With its naturalistic characters, settings, and language, it's Method-friendly. Shelton has built her career as one of the country's most stalwart advocates of a version of the system that combines an emphasis on textual analysis and an understanding of the play's circumstances with a reliance on an actor's emotions, memories, and experiences to create emotional truth. Shelton also feels connected to the role of Carrie Watts, a determined old lady who flees the confines of a rundown Houston apartment for Bountiful, the tiny rural town in which she grew up. "I identify with this woman," she recently told Theatre Bay Area.
Set in Texas in 1947 the year, incidentally, of Shelton's New York debut and the beginning of her long association with Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and other Method acting luminaries Foote's drama tells the story of an elderly woman's homecoming. In many ways, Shelton's nuanced performance heralds her own homecoming. Shelton demonstrates a prodigious range: Perched on a dilapidated couch in her nightgown in the opening scene, she makes for a seemingly tranquil insomniac. But there's pain behind the character's banter with her overprotective son, Ludie, about not being able to sleep because of the full moon. Carrie's true feelings speak through Shelton's fidgety fingers, hunched frame, and hesitant mouth.
Shelton's Carrie is as playful and strong-willed as she is depressed. In front of Ludie's wife, Jessie Mae, a bored housewife whose life revolves around drinking Coca-Cola, going to the salon, and haranguing her mother-in-law, the character is all smiling deference and placid demeanor. Yet, without losing her poise, Carrie shows herself to be in a state of covert rebellion against the younger woman. Shelton's performance is also very physical. Whether collapsing on the floor or skipping girlishly off stage, Shelton reveals a vivacity that belies her age, 78.
As much as the play is about a happy homecoming, it's also about the sadness of realizing that life has moved on and there's no going back. While Bountifulserves as a celebratory metaphor for Shelton's return to the stage, it's not always positive. For one thing, the text is as musty as a geriatric's undergarments. Although the themes of loss and familial tension are as prescient as ever, Foote's writing feels stuck in the past, with little resonant language and few memorable characters to transcend its era. It's hard to take lines like, "A friend of mine has a girl that drinks. I think that's the saddest thing in the world," at face value.
It's also difficult to know whether Shelton truly is in command of her role. Are her apparent lapses in concentration and frequent "ahs" and "ums" part of an ingenious portrayal of a pensioner? Or are they a symptom of the actor's struggle to remember her lines? Shelton is well supported by a talented, nurturing cast (Christian Phillips, Niki Yapo, and Jenny Dare Paulin give particularly sensitive performances as, respectively, Ludie, Jessie Mae, and Thelma, a young woman befriended by Carrie). But even graceful teamwork can't mitigate the thought that we might be experiencing real senior moments.
The role of Carrie might simply be too close to Shelton's own experiences. The heirs of the Method, like David Mamet, have found ways to overcome this limitation techniques for saving the likes of Day-Lewis from identifying too closely with an imagined character. But wedded to a more ancestral form of the system, Shelton's performance and acting style feel as outmoded as Foote's faded play, more throwback than comeback.
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