Michael L. Quintos
It was 25 years ago—waaay back in 1989—when South Coast Repertory first staged the World Premiere of playwright Beth Henley's play Abundance. Fast forward to 2015, and Orange County's Tony Award-winning regional theater saw it fitting to once again revisit the property in a brand new production now viewed through 21st Century eyes, that has been beautifully directed by SCR Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson. The play continues performances in Costa Mesa through November 15.
A grippingly-told, thoroughly absorbing period piece that tracks the rapid rise and eventual fall over a 25-year span of a tight-knit female friendship set against the sweeping vistas of the rugged Wyoming prairies in the late 19th Century, SCR's exceptionally exquisite revival is without question a beautifully-realized new production, marked with truly outstanding acting performances, intriguing dramatic intensity, and plenty of wonderfully droll, darkly comedic touches that kept audience members (including myself) utterly glued to our seats.
Like Henley's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Crimes of the Heart, this play taps into the struggles of life from the point-of-view of strong-willed women, offering glimpses into the emotional and physical toil brought on by the challenges in their lives and how they choose to deal with such challenges. And much like Crimes of the Heart, Abundance also finds great, biting humor even in the saddest of circumstances.
The play posits, for the most part, the overarching question of what—for a person living in these conditions and circumstances—constitutes a so-called "fulfilling" life. Is fulfillment gained by an abundance of wealth and material possessions? Is it all about having a happy, stress-free home life with a generous partner? Or is "fulfillment" a highly unattainable dream approximated only by one's willingness to settle for what one already has, and just hoping for the best?
Therein lies the motif of the play: how the apparent "riches" of one affects the lack of them in the other. Additionally, the play also offers thoughtful variations of determination—the ferocity of one's drive to secure a good (or good enough) life.
When the play begins—which starts in 1868—we instantly meet two women with differing personalities sharing a common and (now) antiquated happenstance that become believably fast friends. At a train depot smack dab in the heart of Wyoming territory, alone sits timid and mousy Bess Johnson (the fantastic Lily Holleman) singing a lovely, chipper tune to herself, hoping to minimize some of her understandable fear and debilitating hopelessness. Apparently, the innocent-looking young lady has been waiting in vain at the station for 10 days—hoping for the eventual appearance of Michael, the mysterious Wyoming frontiersman who has sent for her to the heartland as his mail-order bride. At this point, she's completely depleted of food and money.
Her solitary wait is then interrupted by the sudden appearance of the brazen, highly-opinionated, and much more self-assured Macon Hill (the brilliant Paige Lindsey White), another mail order bride summoned out to Wyoming. Slightly older, more tom-boy-ish, and (pressumably) more worldly and savvy than Bess, Macon—who talks of big dreams of turning her new exotic adventure in big-sky country into best-selling novels someday—not only offers her shy new pal Bess some much-needed sustenance (in the form of biscuits), but also some unsolicited advice and counsel for dealing with their fresh new lives here in this new environment.
In a humorous exchange, both women are hopeful of their futures here. More importantly, they also hope that their would-be husbands—whom either still hasn't met face-to-face yet—aren't "too terribly ugly."
Macon—thinking she's probably the stronger, smarter of the two women here—commands right then and there that they be good friends from here on out, a proposition that seems logical and necessary to poor, seemingly gullible Bess. Naturally, their disparate attitude and demeanor are perfectly in-line to set up how each deals with their brand new lives and with each other, and what happens when fate dictates later that their "roles" be switched.
Pretty soon, a couple of men show up to collect them—both of whom couldn't be more mismatched to their respective would-be brides (ah, if only these ladies had the ability to swipe left, their problems could have been avoided earlier, though the play would have been ridiculously short).
Bess is shocked when out of nowhere, an ill-tempered, long-haired ne'er-do-well named Jack (ruggedly handsome Adam Haas Hunter) shows up with some troubling news: Michael Flan, Jack's brother and the guy who has originally arranged to marry her, has just unexpectedly passed away in an accident (hence the delay).
"I never even got to meet him!" complains Bess, disappointed with the news. Jack, much to his own protests, has come to collect on his brother's arrangement anyway. Oh, crap.
Meanwhile, a more bashful, older gentleman wearing an eye-patch has shown up to scoop Macon at the station. Recently widowed, farmer William Curtis (the sweet-natured Daniel Reichert) has sent for Macon to help ease him back into the stability of a marriage, which seems to be a necessity out here given that he has an entire farm to tend and he has no other family. Expectedly, Macon is a bit ho-hum over her lack of lust for this one-eyed man, but she's plenty excited over all her ideas to help continue his farm's prosperity and longevity (which, in turn, keeps her, at least, monetarily content).
As time marches on, both women have taken to their subservient frontier lives with opposite degrees of contentment. Though they both somewhat cling to each other for safety, companionship, and camaraderie in their shared newbie-ness to the territory, they eventually try to make the most of their respective fates.
Macon, for her part, has settled into a relatively comfortable lifestyle in a large farming homestead, despite being in an essentially love-less marriage with an otherwise kind, non-confrontational man (William, poor guy, seems willing to try to make things work more than Macon, even going as far as wearing a pain-inducing glass eye simply for her benefit). And in order to make her life more palatable, Macon has channeled much of her energies to keeping a good home (sprinkled with neat knick-knacks and such) and to continuously keep the farm thriving by convincing (well, strong-arming) her new husband into introducing new crops and even new equipment to the mix.
Macon also relishes on the fact that her situation is a gazillion times better in comparison to her poor, severely bullied friend Bess' life—something Macon's obvious superiority complex nourishes with friendly hand-holding and even some under-the-table handouts. While her intentions are well-placed, it's also palpably condescending. No matter... Bess often finds herself running to Macon for aid regardless, desperately depressed with her downtrodden life living with the violent, unappreciative, and resentful Jack. The two women still privately dream of escaping and running away Westward from their current lives—but perhaps more with Bess than with Macon. Conveniently, Macon always finds a way to justify staying in Wyoming all while stoking Bess' desires for escape even more.
Soon, in one of his bouts of uncontrollable, irrational rage, Jack sets fire to the shack he shares with Bess, forcing the couple to seek shelter with the more affluent Macon and William. The suddenly cramped living quarters prove annoying for both men, but the two couples smile uneasily through the awkwardness. Macon claims this nice gesture is all motivated by her love for her BFF Bess—but it's clear she's got ulterior motives.
Months turn into years and the two couples continue to live in the same house. All but Bess seem to have comfortably settled into this strange living arrangement. Once again, Macon continues to belay the supposed escape plans she and Bess have dreamed about for years, much to Bess' inconsolable disappointment.
Ah, but you can only push a gal so far before she, well, snaps.
One fateful evening, Bess storms off and disappears into the night, never to be heard from again. Many more years pass and the three are—surprise!—still living together. Macon used to glow with rays of prosperity; now her light seems to have been dimmed a bit. The years, sadly, have not been kind to the farming income of William and Macon—conveniently setting the story up for a reversal of fortunes that make way for some tragic-comic comeuppances and some newly discovered personality traits. This includes the addition of a fifth character, Prof. Elmore Crome (played with mysterious impresario vibes by Larry Bates) who enters their lives in the second act championing a new and surprising career prospect for one of the characters.
A truly first-rate production of an enjoyably unique tale enhanced further by all-around extraordinary performances (some of the best I've seen on this stage ever) and top-notch production values, SCR's 2015 revival of Abundance is an intelligently compelling play—a quiet epic that proves to be one of the finest productions this theater has presented this year. Dark situations normally don't have much wiggle room for comedy, but this one does and accomplishes lots of laughs while churning further deep thoughts.
Remarkably engaging and relatable no matter the demographic, Abundance is a sterling treatise on the nature of humans being either a have or a have not—and what parameters they instill on whether they are stingy, jealous, or generous with such blessings. More than anything, however, the play examines the very American ideal of hope—the kind of blind, pie-in-the-sky optimism that's almost life-sustaining on its own right.
Hope, this play argues, drives decision-making, wish-fulfillment, and how people deal with and persevere through their respective day-to-day grind. With so many unexpected variables battling for dominance in this still relatively youthful, unexplored territory, there really is an abundance of hope here—a must-have especially in the harshest of conditions.
Aided by John Iacovelli's perfectly minimalist yet highly effective sets, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's purposeful lighting, and Angela Balogh Calin's frontier-authentic costumes, Benson helms the production with tone-perfect pacing and melodramatic heft to vividly present this idea of 'hope' as it existed during an era when the prospects of the future still presented lots of room for promise. Throw in incredibly masterful performances by White and Holleman—who are insanely good whether discussing as two pals or sparring like two warring divas. Both lead actresses, along with awesome support from Hunter, Reichert, and Bates, ably steer the story into both comedy and tragedy, resulting in a play definitely worth experiencing, particularly if you have not seen the play before or have not seen it done this well.
I really enjoyed taking in the opposing mechanics of the two acts: the first half feels like it's being presented as a series of seemingly fluid but connected vignettes to keep the narrative moving steadily forward, while the second act feels like an equally riveting sequel story to tie up loose ends and bring about closure. It's a satisfyingly good play with a satisfying beginning, middle, and resolution—and it feels like the creatives behind it know this to be true as well (and that's always nice).
While most tales set in the early frontier settlement days are mostly male-centric affairs that highlight the raw machismo of prairie life, Abundance offers a refreshingly pleasant anti-dote that's terrifically compelling, as it marvelously presents a unique story hinging on strong female perspectives. And also pertinent: how unflinching the play is in presenting with pointed humor such flawed, prone-to-err characters even if they were placed here initially on a pedestal. That by itself (among other admirable aspects) is why SCR's revival is worth taking another look, especially with today's more knowing eyes and mindset.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Debora Robinson and Ben Horak for South Coast Repertory. Review reproduced from OnStage.
Beth Henley's 'ABUNDANCE' continues performances at South Coast Repertory through November 15, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.