If ever there was a perfect setting for Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, it is at The Gary – The Olivia Theatre located at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem. Here the simplicity of  everyday life intertwines with the lushness of nature.

Director Sally Camm  embraces the integrity of both place and play and allows the Clay & Wattles Theater Company to home in on the very essence of this poignant story. By keeping the production simple, the spotlight shines on the actors who deliver heart-felt performances.  The first act is a long act, and the pace on opening night certainly could have been picked up.   Nonetheless, with memorable scenes unfolding seamlessly on this quiet wooded country stage, the actors grabbed hold of the audience’s rapt attention and never let it go.

Sarah Robards plays Carrie Watts, the protagonist of the play. Her performance is so unpretentious, so natural and warm that you forget she is acting. Her facial expressions speak as clearly as her spot-on elocution. It’s such a pleasure to hear every word that Horton Foote wrote so clearly. Carrie Watts is living with her only son and annoying daughter-in-law. Her one desire is to return to her hometown, named Bountiful. In many ways, Carrie is like a bird whose wings have been clipped. She longs for freedom. Robards skillfully shows a restlessness that emanates in her character and the audience cheers for every brave action old mother Carrie takes.

Just as skillfully, Katie Keough, as self-centered daughter-in-law Jessie Mae Watts, manages to turn the audience appropriately against her character. Jessie Mae is the antagonist and Keough plunges into the role with gusto pushing all the right buttons to make her character downright nasty.

David Macharelli delivers an unforgettable performance as Ludie Watts, the quiet, loving son and hard working husband caught between the two women he loves most in the world. How does the audience know  Ludie’s character so well so quickly? It is because Macharelli’s every gesture, facial and body language, responds to the character’s most inner needs. His performance is understatement at its highest achievement.

What director Sally Camm does best is bring out reaction of all the characters, even those who don’t get star billing. Caroline McCaughey as Thelma, a supporting character whom Carrie meets in a railroad station, is mesmerizing. She’s always in the moment and in the melancholy of the character’s personna. Thomas Camm as sherriff has just the right touch for his confident and humanely considerate character. Brother Kevin McElroy and David Harrell are railroad ticket men with Joe Stofko as a bus attendant (on opening night also a ticket man) and Alexandra Camm an impatient traveler.

Overall, this is a wonderful play about going back to one’s roots. It’s about learning to compromise in important relationships, and mostly it’s about respect for one another and honoring one’s personal freedom. Justin Cain’s important sound design works well as does Matt Wood’s creative and suggestive set design. With basic and simple strokes, the set is a city apartment. With  a box of  low growing greenery here and there, the set takes on  the aura of a gone to waste farm.

Pick a night or an afternoon and travel with a superior cast to Bountiful, aka your own hometown memories. This production runs through June 21. Box office: 203-273-5821.