'Abundance' -- A Bumpy Journey West For Two Women
By FRANK RIZZO
The show: "Abundance" by Beth Henley at Hartford Stage
First impressions: This sweeping frontier saga centers on two special-delivery brides in the American West in the 1860s, and follows their tumultuous lives over 25 years as they face near-starvation, fire, frostbite, droughts, deformity, foreclosure, and kidnapping by Indians. Think "Little Big Women," as a distaff nod to the Arthur Penn loopy revisionist Western film.
Intimacy is on Henley's mind as she explores the women's relationships. One is a free spirit leaning forward for adventure. The other is a house mouse, cowering in her helplessness. One misfit husband is abusive, cruel and a jerk. The other is passive, awkward and a dope.
It's tricky to present these personal, episodic stories writ large on a vast historic, iconic landscape (not to mention the stark expanse of Hartford Stage). Trickier still is the ever-shifting tone, humor and rhythms of this offbeat parable that flirts with epic themes about gender, commerce, celebrity, the myths of America -- but opts instead for something less abundant.
So did you like it? I have a decidedly mixed response. I appreciate many of the ideas -- well, notions more than fully-formed ideas really -- raised in the play. But there's little pulling these turn of events together into a satisfying whole in the production directed by Jenn Thompson.
While there are many individual scenes that amuse, shock and move, they are not artfully integrated but rather loosely stitched like a crazy quilt.
The story? The untamed American West of the mid-to-late 19th century is the blank canvas awaiting those who want fresh starts, new adventures or a place to call home. Two women - subservient Bess (Monique Vukovic) and hyper-active Macon (Brenda Withers) -- meet as they wait for their new mates at a train station and become friends, though they really have little in common other than their marital predicament and their hope for a brighter future in desperate times. "Honey, I'd rip the wings off an angel if I'd thought they'd help me fly,” says Macon.
Bess' intended has died, but his brute of a brother Jack (James Knight, looking like smarmy Kardashian hanger-on Scott Disick) marries her instead, with all the disinterest of buying a heifer.
Macon's new mate, the recently widowed, one-eyed William (Kevin Kelly), is no prize either, but the resilient Macon makes the best of it. The couple prospers as homesteading neighbors Bess and Jack's fortunes quickly go bust thanks to ne'er-do-well Jack. William and Macon take the couple in and then relationships get complicated.
A sudden exit of one of the characters, a leap in time and a reversal of fortune changes things, as America and the West become transformed.
The melancholy increases as friendships dissolve, destinies are switched and the freedom that both woman sought at the play's beginning seems distant.
Production values? Though I get the sense of awesome isolation in the Wyoming wilderness in Wilson Chin's big sky vista, the two couples on that huge, ever-rotating stage seem awfully lonely at times, in unintended ways. Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting paints with a beautiful Western hue, but Toby Jaguar Algya's sound design is jarring and too modern for the room.
And the actors? Withers' Macon comes across at first as a Calamity Jane-like caricature but as the play progresses she finds the complexity of colors in her deferred dreams that make her final scene poignant. Vukovic has the task of making Bess more than a doormat, an almost unsurmountable challenge, redeemed by her second act make-over.
Kelly embraces the core of his gruff, frustrated character and works wonders with every comic pitch that Henley tosses his way. Knight looks too handsome and buff for the role but finds a dry arrogance that suits Henley's rhythms. John Leonard Thompson is fitting as the editor who knows a good story when he sees one.
Who will like it? Henley fans for sure. Lovers of extravagant yarns told with a sharp stick. Those searching for a female-centric point of view in the making of the American West.
For the kids? Though there's an adulterous relationship, the language is 19th century appropriate. Smart teens will connect to the tall tale aspect of the play and what kid won't relate to the brawling and series of farming and mining disfigurements?
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: O Pioneer Women! You're in for one rough ride.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot? Can the physical space make a difference? I wonder. If this production were presented on a smaller TheaterWorks-like space, would it have made the experience different, more intimate, ironically claustrophobic? (Big skies, tiny cabins?) But sometimes big pictures are best seen close-up.
The basics: The show at 50 Church St., downtown Hartford plays through April 28. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission. Information at 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.