If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Henley’s “Abundance” in Revival at Hartford Stage
Playwright Beth Henley, best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning classic “Crimes of the Heart”, also has a few lesser-known works on her resume. Hartford Stage is currently presenting Henley’s little-seen dark comedy, “Abundance”. Although not nearly as well known as her earlier work, “Abundance” deserves a look and shines a light on a writer who doesn’t seem to get produced as much as she should.
“Abundance” is an often wickedly funny tall tale set in the Old West and covering 25 years in the journey of two very different women. Bess and Macon (the wonderful Monique Vukovic and Brenda Withers) meet as mail-order brides in the Wyoming territory circa 1860. They’ve never met their prospective husbands and when they do, it is not exactly love at first sight. For Bess, her intended is dead before the meeting even takes place. His surly brother Jack (James Knight) meets Bess and informs her that he’ll be her husband now and that no crying or singing is allowed in his house. Macon fairs slightly better with the dull William (Kevin Kelly, very amusing), a one-eyed farmer still mourning the death of his first wife. The next 25 years charts the women’s friendship as they endure marital abuse, child birth, adultery, hostile Indians, drought, abduction and both financial success and bankruptcy.
Beth Henley writes in the Southern Gothic style and the often bleakly funny misfortunes -- particular of the sad-sack William -- may not appeal to all audiences. Henley is an acquired taste to be sure, but I admire her adventurous writing spirit and in Bess and Macon she has created two wildly different and distinctly individual characters for a pair of talented actresses to bring to life. At Hartford Stage you get that and more. Vukovic’s transformation from mousy housewife to bestselling author (yes, you read that right!) is great fun to witness and Withers is a powerhouse of raw emotion who takes charge of the situation with her very first entrance. The utter joy and fascination of watching the women then reverse roles and take on each character’s strengths and weaknesses cannot be underestimated.
There are some caveats. The play’s first act seems better if only because the trials and tribulations of Bess in act two can be wearying -- at least until she takes control of her situation. The male roles are also not as well written, especially that of the thankless Jack which Mr. Knight -- to his credit -- gives his all. It doesn’t make his character’s basic cruelty any easier to take, however, even in a comedy this dark. Late in the play a fifth character arrives and the less said about him, the better, to save some surprises for the audience. But John Leonard Thompson does prove to be exactly right for the role.
The expansion and desolation of the Great West is beautifully realized by scenic designer Wilson Chin who, in concert with Philip S. Rosenberg’s breathtaking lighting, paints a grim but gorgeous landscape in which to tell this tale. Tracy Christensen’s costuming is excellent and especially good at delineating Bess and Macon’s fortunes as the play progresses. All said, “Abundance” is richly rewarding theatre.
“Abundance” continues at Hartford Stage through April 28th. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.520.7247 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.