Ben Miles Reviews - Theater

"Abundance is a revisionist western that no one will confuse with the classics of John Ford and Howard Hawks," so wrote New York Times theater critic Frank Rich of the Big Apple debut of Beth Henley's 1988 play, "Abundance."

But before Rich wrote those apt words, and before its New York premiere, Abundance made its world debut at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory Theatre. Now, 25 years hence, Abundance, under the lucid direction of Martin Benson, is again being colorfully assayed on SCR's Segerstrom Stage.

Abundance is a clever conceit. Two women meet in Wyoming territory in 1868. They are there to be greeted into their new lives as mail order brides. One, Macon Hill (Paige Lindsey White in a humorously exuberant turn), is so optimistic about her pending situation that she diagnoses her condition as “western fever.” The other, Bess Johnson (an pitifully endearing profile rendered by Lily Holleman) is a nervous wreck. Taking husbands, sight unseen, is a risky proposition, and the first stated concern of these St. Louis transplants is that their newly found husbands might be ugly to look upon. Soon, however, the women discover that there’s much more to be concerned about in their circumstance than the looks of the grooms.

When at last the men do arrive at the train depot to meet their ladies, a surprise awaits them. Bess’s would be husband has been killed in a recent accident. His brother, Jack Flan (Adam Hass Hunter in a chilling portrayal), is a cruel and circumspect man who decides that he will take Bess in mail order matrimony. Meanwhile, Macon’s new husband, William Curtis (Daniel Reichert in a sturdy, well calibrated performance), is missing an eye and has an unsightly scar due to the trauma.

The story spans a quarter century’s time in the old west. The frontier is inhospitable, and the living is a constant challenge. Bess and Macon become fast friends, but their husbands don’t quiet mesh. Jack is a lowdown ne’re-do-well who is prone to stealing William’s firewood. In a fit of insanity Jack burns down his and Bess’s cabin, which in turn leads to Jack and Bess living in William and Macon’s modest prairie    abode – for years, until one day Bess is kidnapped by a plains Indian tribe.

Bess is gone for years, but Jack remains living with Macon and William. It’s an awkward circumstance to be sure. And in a small cabin, feelings that become pent up must somehow be released. Jack and Macon find an outlet for their close-quarter frustrations. But when Bess is returned to her husband by the U.S. Calvary, fortunes change: better for some and worse for others.

For Bess, her acquaintance with Professor Elmore Crome (a utilitarian character played convincingly by Larry Bates), results in a book and a book tour based on her misadventures in captivity.  For the optimistic Macon, who always thought that she’d be the author of a book, life doesn’t measure up to her lofty expectations.

Henley’s take on the old west is through a feminist’s perspective. Women in the day were used, abused and often disgraced and discarded. Disappointment and subjugation was the fate of many 19th century ladies of the West. Henley’s play underscores their struggles in a manner that is informative, amusing and troubling. With a magnificently mobile scenic design by John Iacovelli, which evokes the vast western landscape and the starry, starry Wyoming nights, and an original soundscape by composer Michael Roth (who also provided the soundscape and incidental music for the original SCR production of Abundance), the production value of this Abundance staging is Wyoming sky-high. Add to the mix the authenticity of Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes and the tense fight choreography of Ken Mercrx and the show is complete in its attention to the details of this unique drama.

“Abundance” continues at South Coast Rep through November 15. SCR is located at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Evening performances are Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays the show begins at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For reservations, call (714) 708- 5555. For online ticketing and further information, visit www.scr.org.