Friday, April 12, 2013

Theater Review: Abundance -- Hartford Stage

Brenda Withers and Monique Vukovic. Photo:
T. Charles Erickson
A Tale as Tall as the Sky is Wide Sweeps Across the Stage
By Lauren Yarger
Abundance, Beth Henley’s tale of two mail order brides out west in the last part of the 19th century, packs in everything you’d expect from a tall tale of life on the American frontier – and much more. Maybe too much.

Hardships of trying to homestead amidst drought and blizzards, an abduction by Native Americans, enduring friendship and a love triangle all come to life under the expansive skies of Wyoming over at Hartford Stage (thanks to some sweeping, brooding rough-edged set backgrounds designed by William Chin in front of a revolving stage.)

Bess (Monique Vokovic) and Macon (Brenda Withers) first meet in the 1860s when they are waiting to meet the men to whom they have traveled to be mail-order brides. Macon is vivacious, excited about the possibilities of a new start and consumed by a burning desire to see what’s out west. 

“I’d rip the wings off an angel if I thought they’d help me fly,” she says.

(Henley’s dialogue and Withers’ portrayal both are brilliant). 

She befriends the shy, compliant, almost simple-minded Bess who has been waiting for days – without any food – for her intended, who wrote about the size of the western sky and with whom she hopes to have a fairytale romance.

His brother, rude and crude Jack (James Knight), arrives instead, however, to inform her that his brother has died in an accident and that he’ll be marrying her instead. She goes off with him planning to be a good wife. His cruelty – he forbids her to sing or cry among other things -- soon makes it clear that a happy ending isn’t coming for their story.

“You out west now,” he tells her. “Things are different here.”

Macon’s fiancĂ©, boring William (Kevin Kelly), isn’t exactly what she was hoping for either. He forgot to mention a few things in his correspondence, like the fact that he was married before to a wife he loved very much and the fact that he’s missing an eye, lost in a mining accident. Macon marries a man she feels “allergic to” and tries to make the best of things while helping to manage their growing ranch.

“Even if he had another eye,” Macon tells Bess, “I might find him repulsive.”

While enduring their loveless marriages, the women take strength from their friendship and Macon proves a lifeline for Bess after she loses a baby. Never-do-well Jack is scammed when he buys a worthless gold mine. He steals firewood from their friends and Bess searches for straw in her bed mattress to keep from starving. When Jack burns down their home, he and Bess move in with William and Macon.

“Temporary living arrangements” turn permanent, however, and tensions mount as Jack shows no intention of working or showing any gratitude for his good fortune. William is tired of Jack eating all of their food; Bess wants Macon to leave her prospering ranch and the men behind to go further out west like they had talked about when they first met. Jack, however, wants something more: Macon herself.

When Native Americans abduct Bess and her scalp turns up for sale, Macon can’t contain her passion for Jack any longer. Year later, Bess turns up and the story of her years in captivity makes her a celebrity, thanks to Elmore (John Leonard Thompson), a professor who puts her story into a bestselling book and manages her speaking engagements. Suddenly a more confident – and rich-- Bess starts looking and sounding more like the old Macon, who feels left out – and suddenly Jack thinks his wife might not be so bad after all.

Jenn Thompson gets good performances from her ensemble and uses subtle technique to enhance the humor in Henley’s tale, which is well crafted to bring plot points full circle as roles and the couples’ fortunes change (the playwright won the Pulitzer Prize for Crimes of the Heart.) The plot can seem broad and almost unbelievable in places, however, like a yarn being told around a campfire. Dramaturg Elizabeth William’s program information reminds us, however, that details about Bess’ abduction parallel those of a real-life victim named Olive Oatman and that most of the situations encountered by the women during the settling of the western frontier through 1890 were indeed real and not the stuff of fiction.

Some parts of the play are just hard to swallow, though. Why anyone wouldn’t just put sleazy Jack out for the wolves’ dinner is hard to fathom, yet the other three put up with – and in the case of the two women – have feelings for him. The audience even gasps at his harshness at times.

Why didn’t Macon help her friend before she was in such desperate circumstances? Were there no other people in the expanding territory who could have helped and taken the couple in during the two years they stay with William and Macon (Jack stays another seven after Bess is kidnapped)?

A number of these “but why?” questions come up throughout the play. Combined with the far-reaching plot points, the play has an uneven feel, like an "abundance" of too many pieces crammed into the two-hour-10-minute play with none being explored as thoroughly as we’d like. The sweeping tale still is engrossing, however, and enjoyable – especially the humorous parts.

Abundance stakes its claim at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through April 28. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Matinee schedule varies on select Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $26.50-$93.50:  860-527-5151;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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