“Abundance” at Hartford Stage
By Tom Nissley
Beth Henley’s play, “Abundance,” now playing at Hartford Stage, puts a spotlight on the kinds of men and women who took off for the land beyond the frontier and what happened to mold their experience. It takes place in the vast wilderness of Wyoming in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is deeply personal, and a textbook on stress: just plain old stress, married stress, and also what is now called post-traumatic stress. For most of us, I think it’s safe to say it describes a different world than we generally know.
Bess (Monique Vukovic) and Macon (Brenda Withers) meet each other at a stagecoach drop somewhere in Wyoming. Bess has been there for a week, waiting for Mike Flynn to pick her up. He’d sent her part of the money for travel: she’s put all she had into paying the rest of it. She’s gentle and sings to herself to keep believing that the universe is going to provide. Macon’s biscuits, in the meantime, are a welcome treat. Macon, besides offering the biscuits, exudes with belief in the great opportunity they have now to make a new and wonderful life. She’s practical, and take-charge. The two become friends.
Enter two men. William (Kevin Kelly) has only one eye – the other got massacred by mistake in a mining accident. He’s quiet, maybe steady but dull, a disappointment to Macon, his new bride. Jack (James Knight) is Mike Flynn’s brother. Mike got killed in a threshing machine. But Jack will marry Bess. She offers to sing. Jack tells her never do that again! She offers to clean out the ticks and lice from the bed in his cabin. He tells her not to change a thing! Jack may be the meanest, ugliest, character ever on stage. Certainly the epitome of an abusing husband. When in a drunken rage he celebrates Christmas Eve by burning down their cabin, Jack and Bess come to live under Macon and William’s roof for the duration.
By this time a subtle shift begins to take place, and it is the keystone to this interesting fable. Bess, who has been the epitome of a submissive wife/slave, is finally ready to go farther west with Macon. Macon, who has always seemed ready to forge on, is beginning to like the stability she and William have accomplished. Macon does a little dance, putting her hairpins into Jack’s hands. Bess goes out to walk things off, and zing: a fallen arrow marks the spot where she seems to have been carried away by Indians.
Some years later Bess is rescued and returns. Completely traumatized, she does not speak, or want to stay. She has left two children, fathered by the chief who captured her. Her face is tattooed. Jack is still living with Macon and William, now in a love tryst with Macon, who prefers his energy to William’s lack of passion. When a gentle scholar named Elmore (John Leonard Thompson) begs her to tell him her story, Bess begins to speak (along the way screaming “Treachery!” and alluding to the hairpins many years before) and Elmore helps her to turn her trauma with the Indians into a lecture tour and feature articles which make her a rich woman. Jack deserts Macon in order to stay with the money. He is no longer the abuser but now takes abuse from Bess. William and Macon lose their farmlands to the drought and the bank, and William leaves Macon, who becomes a hopeless drifter, while Bess becomes a wealthy celebrity.
The see-saw shift between powerful and powerless -- the mighty becoming low, and the low becoming high -- is an exquisite conceit that is worked in fine detail in “Abundance.” Jenn Thompson’s careful and skilled direction makes the production a tour de force, and the actors work together in an ensemble with no seams.
Wilson Chin’s striking set offers a great background, with help from Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting, and Tracy Christensen’s costumes are handsome. “Abundance” plays through April 28. Tickets at www.hartfordstage.org, or at 860-527-5151.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre
April 12, 2013