I had forgotten how much I loved Beth Henley‘s writing. How she could meticulously form characters and thoughts that were thoroughly Freudian, so real, so full of life, depth, feeling, almost insane – tragical and comical in a single instance.
To boot, Henley has been creating three-dimensional women for more than 30 years – long before it was in vogue for entertainment industry leaders, to aggressively mission against over-sexed and stereotypical profiling of the female figure in film, television and stage. And lucky for us. We as an audience and especially we women who regularly search often in vain for roles, models and ideals we can heartily chew, have had more than just a little something to “go on”.
The mere staying power of Abundance, originally produced in 1989 at South Coast Repertory, prior to its opening on Broadway the following year, now remounted once again for SCR’s 2015-16 season, is sterling proof that Henley’s mojo is indeed “workin'”. Abundance is no less modern today and a startling example of what stands the test of time and temperament.
Abundance is the story of Bess Johnson and Macon Hill, two mail-order brides, fantastically hopeful for a bright future of love and adventure as they head to the Wyoming Territory to meet their new husbands. Their epic story twistily unfolds on the American frontier from 1868-93 (25 years).
As women Bess and Macon initially appear to be radically different. Bess is thoughtful, sweet, unassuming. She accepts life as is and makes the best of things. There is an inkling of course of the woman she could be, a one Macon spontaneously points out at their first encounter. Bess is just bold enough to make the trip on her own, to meet a a seemingly gentler man who has been writing beautiful poetry to her, enticing the romantic expectation of Bess potentially finding her “one true one.” Macon on the other hand, is boisterous, boyish and unafraid to take life head on and intends to do so with gusto at every minute. She’s ventured “…to see what’s out there; whatever’s out there…Could be anything. I savor the boundlessness of it all. The wild flavor. I’m drunk with western fever.”
What these two women get however, is quite the opposite. In fact, both end up leading rather tamed, unhappy lives, respectively plowing through either abject poverty and abuse or the dull monotony of field work and uninteresting husbands. Until they don’t. At a climactic moment, Bess disappears into the night on the frozen prairie, not to be found for years, and everything including Bess’ and Macon’s positions, even their identities, radically and irrevocably changes from fortunes to attitudes to successes and failures.
There is a certain brilliance in Abundance as to how Henley’s writing frames a bit of the history here with settlers and Native Americans in the land grab, development and butting heads. In the microcosm of Bess’ and Macon’s lives there is a particular “everyday” insight to life on the plains. What these women deal with is extraordinary really, but also ordinary in every way and we watch as their lives rise and fall and fall away, bit by bit, never really achieving a once dreamed of abundance, with incredible fascination and empathy.
There could not have been two better actresses cast in Abundance for its remount. Lily Holleman as Bess and Paige Lyndsey White as Macon, are so completely connected to the characters they truly epitomize; unmistakably dynamic and with incredible breath, depth of emotion, and chemistry to spare. Daniel Reichart as William Curtis and Adam Haas Hunter (who was no less spectacular in his recent performance of The Great Divide) nail this script, supporting their leading ladies to satisfying perfection. Larry Bates as Professor Elmore Crome is downright savory as a game changer in this piece.
“What an experience!”
Photo (above): Paige Lindsey White and Lily Holleman in SCR’s 2015 Abundance