Monday, March 2, 2015

164 (2014-2015): Review of ABUNDANCE (February 25, 2015)

"Oh Give Me a Home Where the Elephants Roam"

Gritty Westerns centering on the travails of sturdy women settlers on the 19th-century frontier are rare livestock on the American stage, and even in films, although the recent movie THE HOMESMAN, starring Hilary Swank, made worthwhile inroads in the genre. Beth Henley’s (CRIMES OF THE HEART) intriguing contribution, ABUNDANCE, was first produced at the South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, CA, in 1989. It was staged locally in 1990 by the Manhattan Theatre Club (with Amanda Plummer as Bess Johnson and Tess Harper as Macon Hill), and subsequently was given a number of regional productions. It then largely faded from view before being revived by the Hartford Stage Company in 2013. ABUNDANCE is now being given a sturdy, if not entirely fulfilling, revival by The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) at the Beckett. A compact, five-character play, staged here in minimalist fashion, it offers something refreshingly different from the glut of contemporary domestic dramas.
From left: Kelly McAndrew, Tracy Middendorf. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
ABUNDANCE takes place under the big sky of the Wyoming Territory, beginning in the late 1860s and covering a quarter of a century in the lives of Bess Johnson (Tracy Middendorf) and Macon Hill (Kelly McAndrew). Bess and Macon are mail order brides who meet the day their new husbands, homesteading ranchers, arrive at the small town stagecoach depot to pick them up. Bess gets hitched to Jack Flan (Todd Lawson), hunky but gun-slinging, surly, laconic, illiterate, and abusive. Macon’s spouse, a facially scarred, one-eyed widower named Will Curtis (Ted Koch), is, despite his lack of social graces, generally sincere and well-meaning. Still, he too—at the beginning—treats his wife, who finds him “repulsive,” more as property than as partner. Bess, naive and goodhearted, is ready to do whatever’s necessary to please her new husband, although he immediately stifles her best qualities, like her love for singing. Macon, outgoing and risk-taking, speaks metaphorically of coming out west "to see the elephant," hinting at the abundance with which she hopes to fill her life. She dreams of one day writing a novel about her experiences, and bonds deeply with Bess, while the men keep a cautious distance from one another. Ironically, as the play progresses, Bess becomes the adventurer, while Macon becomes the homebody.   
From left: Tracy Middendorf, Kelly McAndrew, Todd Lawson. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Henley has done her research well, so we learn how people living in primitive conditions on the frontier managed to survive the cold winters and lack of food; in one scene, Bess is busy picking grains of wheat out of the straw stuffing in a mattress. Material goods are scarce, but when Will gives his wife a Christmas present, it’s nothing she can make immediate use of: instead, it’s a glass eye he thinks will make her happy when he puts it in his empty socket. This kind of black humor pervades the play, which has multiple references to body parts lost in accidents, like the three fingers Will’s first wife lost, making a ring she wore useless.  
Todd Lawson, Marielle Middendorf. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Following an angry outburst in which Jack burns his and Bess’s house down, he and she move in with Will and Macon, where they become permanent guests. Jack's fecklessness and selfishness do little to assuage Will’s annoyance, while Macon is more accommodating. Things take a surprising turn for the worse when Bess is abducted by Indians (an incident loosely based on the story of a woman named Olive Oatman); she doesn't return until the U.S. Army finds her five years later. 

By now, lust has invaded the premises, with Macon becoming Jack’s Jill. Bess, back with her husband and friends, her arms and chin tattooed in blue, is bitter and barely able to speak. She is, however, convinced by the enterprising Professor Elmore Crone (Jeff Talbott) to coauthor a book about her experiences as a squaw. Its success turns everything topsy-turvy, leading to role reversals and painful personal rejections; at the end, none of the surviving main characters is who they were when the play began.
Kelly McAndrew, Ted Koch. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
There’s an extremely appealing bluntness to the way the characters talk in ABUNDANCE, a rich, direct, and often comic vernacular that gets to the point and expresses emotion while at the same time conveying information. People say what’s on their mind, and don’t beat around the bush, but they do so in pithy language that has a juicy flavor reminiscent of Mark Twain. For example, Bess and Macon, in their first conversation, have this colloquy:

MACON: . . . Ya know what I hope? I hope our husbands don't turn out to t'be just too damn ugly t'stand.
BESS: You think they'll be ugly?
MACON: Maybe. Maybe. But I hear divorce is cheap and easily obtainable out here in the west.
BESS: I'd never get no divorce.
MACON: Honey, I'd rip the wings off an angel if I thought they'd help me fly! . . . 

From left: Tracy Middendorf, Ted Koch, Kelly McAndrew, Todd Lawson. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Not everything hangs together plausibly, however, as Henley’s agenda in exploring issues of female empowerment forces a not entirely believable transition in Bess’s character. First, we have to accept her near catatonic state on returning, even though she seems angrier about the low price her Indian spouse sold her for to the Army than because of any specific abuse; then, given the opportunity to exploit her adventures for financial gain, she rapidly becomes a ruthless businesswoman, dominating her previously brutish husband and coldly ignoring her seriously needy former friend. Similarly, Macon’s descent into solitude and disgrace seems too schematic, and lacks the pathos it demands, although this may be a fault in the production rather than the writing. 
Tracy Middendorf, Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
The play moves forward in episodic installments as time passes and we get to know more about how conditions change the characters’ lives and relationships, especially in terms of Bess and Macon’s friendship. Eschewing the more heavily scenic approach of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production, which used two turntables, director Jenn Thompson wisely employs a sparse, cinematic staging that, aided by interesting sound design and original music by Tony Algya, avoids the need for time-consuming scene changes; still, the pacing in some scenes could be brisker.
Tracy Middendorf, Jeff Talbott, Todd Lawson. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Wilson Chin’s setting is essentially a raised platform used for all the locales, each of them differentiated by one or more simple pieces of furniture. Surrounding the stage on all three sides is a narrow skyscape suggestive of clouds and mountains, atmospherically lit by Philip Rosenberg. One scenic item, however, is puzzling: a thick hoisting pillar and beam that stands throughout in the up right corner, resembling nothing so much as a gallows, although the play never alludes to hanging. Tracy Christensen’s costumes are a simplified version of conventional Western wear, combining traditional with modern touches, like the zippers on Jack’s jacket, or the tank top Macon wears.   
Kelly McAndrew. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Ms. Middendorf does all that’s required of her multifaceted character, but never seems to break beneath the surface; she’s most satisfactory when playing the successful, sharply focused author/lecturer. Ms. McAndrew brings life and vitality to Macon during the good years, but the final scene, when she appears as a syphilitic wreck, lacks the poignancy it demands. Todd Lawson’s Jack Flan has the right aura of cruelty and swagger, yet his sullenness succumbs to one-dimensionality. As Will, Ted Koch is suitably rough-edged, yet sympathetic. Jeff Talbott’s professor makes the most of his skimpily drawn role.

While unsuccessful on a number of fronts, ABUNDANCE is nonetheless worth seeing as an example of Beth Henley’s best writing. The actors aren’t always able to make her lines bounce they way they should, but even then they’re almost always worth hearing. And, at a bit over two hours, there's an abundance of them.

Beckett Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 28

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