Also see Fred's review of The Mountaintop
Director Jenn Thompson and designer Wilson Chin open up the performance area to provide a panoramic vista of the West, in this case Wyoming. Two women, mail-order brides, meet at the outset as each expects to become acquainted with a designated husband. Bess (Monique Vukovic), whose singing voice is sweet and welcome, is introverted and scared. Macon (Brenda Withers) provides contrast: she is talkative, positive and anticipatory. Macon's man wears an eye patch but promises that he will soon have a glass eye to replace the one he lost. The unfortunate soul, William (Kevin Kelly), was married to someone who passed away fairly recently; he adored her. William, at Christmas, hands Macon a card signed by Brown Spot (a cow).
Bess's situation is far worse since Jack (James Knight) is mean-spirited, downright nasty, and physically abusive. Bess thought she was to wed Jack's brother who, she discovers, died in an accident. Jack is the replacement. Jack is the sort of person who will set fire to his homeand then take up with Macon and William. Did someone say "love triangle?"
Bess is kidnapped by Native Americans. When she returns to the scene she is a totally different women whose mouth has been painted/tattooed. Bess, in a while, recovers all of her lost voices. A professor named Elmore (John Leonard Thompson) turns up and, almost presto, there's a terrific book and a speaking tour for Bess.
In the end, having reversed roles, Macon and Bess reunite. Does the future hold material wealth and/or marital bliss for either of both? That no longer seems most relevant. Friendship may bend but, in this case, it endures.
The first act of Abundance requires close attention, since Henley shifts from one brief vignette to the next. This works for a portion of that hour but some sections are more fragmentary than others. The second and shorter act congeals, as Henley's plot becomes sharper and one understands how and why she wrote the first portion of the play.
The actors are splendid. Vukovic is seamless as she transforms Bess at least three times. Withers' Macon, as the play begins, is wide-eyed and optimistic. Macon is a broken woman at the play's conclusion and the actress transforms with her character. Kelly is disciplined and effective as unattractive William. The good-looking Knight is adept as Jack evolves from cruel and inconsiderate boor to a far different person. As Elmore, John Leonard Thompson is fittingly tight.
Some may claim that Henley's scripting includes incredulous turns; that contention might hold some truth. The purpose, however, is not necessarily to recreate reality. This is a story, a tale of an era about several individuals who live in a particular geographical region. The author gets it right and benefits from production touches fashioned through a creative team led by director Jenn Thompson.
Chin's set is spare yet suitable. Designer Philip S. Rosenberg's stage lighting is informative: he helps establish the rhythm of this production. Toby Jaguar Algya's sound design is proactive in facilitating atmosphere. Tracy Christensen's wardrobe choices add flavor. There's some grappling too, and Thom Delventhal is the fight coach.
Director Thompson does well with the storyline and pays heed to a few welcome comedic opportunities. This is a rich play which is epic in scope rather than length. Henley zeroes in on an intriguing half century and her performers actualize her script with spirited precision.
Abundance continues at Hartford Stage through April 28th. For tickets, call (860) 527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.
- Fred Sokol