Beth Henley’s “Abundance,” now in production at South Coast Repertory, is a disturbing play. It has many moments of giddy comedy and many more moments of harsh drama. The situation of women in post-Civil War America was often grim. With hundreds of thousands of men dead in the war and many of the survivors grievously damaged mentally and physically, the prospects of marriage, often the only course of economic survival for a woman, were often sparse. For men who struck out to seek their fortunes in the Great American West, women, and the comforts they provided, were scarce. Enter the era of the mail-order bride. Desperate men would post advertisements in newspapers and desperate women would respond, and, after a short exchange of letters, would boldly travel west to encounter their fate.
In the late 1860s, Bess Johnson (Lily Holleman) and Macon Hill (Paige Lindsey White) meet at what Ms. Henley calls “a stage coach ranché” in the Wyoming Territory where the two women discover that they are alike, both waiting for their mail-order husbands to come and fetch them. They ponder. What will the men look like? Will they smell good or bad? Are they kind or cruel? Their only clues are the brief letters they have exchanged. Bess has romantic notions fueled by stories of “princesses and chimney sweeps and dragon slayers.” Macon has her own romantic notions that have nothing to do with a man. She wants to “…discover gold and be rich…erect an ice palace and kill an Indian with a hot bullet.” Bess is a light-hearted young woman who loves to sing and hopes for the best. The brash, self-assured Macon sees it all as a great adventure with herself as the heroine of the novel she intends to write. She calls it all, “hunting the elephant.”
The man who arrives to collect Bess is not her correspondent, but rather his brother, who informs her that her intended has died. Jack Flan (Adam Hass Hunter) turns out to be a rough, cruel illiterate, and a shiftless conniver who treats her badly and makes stupid decisions that threaten their very existence. When Macon’s intended, William Curtis (Daniel Reichert) shows up, she is not impressed. A one-eyed man, he speaks shyly and deliberately. He is a hard worker and wants to make a go of it and Macon is resigned.
The play has an episodic structure; nineteen scenes span twenty-five years. During that time the two couples endure harsh winters and other hardships. Macon and William become successful at farming and animal husbandry, while Bess and Jack struggle to survive and ultimately fail. Bess is abased by her husband, while the enterprising Macon endures the boredom of hers. The two couples become entwined, with passions aroused and stifled, until a harrowing, dramatic incident with long-ranging consequences upends everything, totally changing the trajectories of the characters. In the middle of the second act, an opportunist, Professor Elmore Cone (Larry Bates), enters determined to profit by publicizing the incident coyly mentioned above,
As one comes to expect at South Coast Repertory, the play, directed by Martin Benson, is expertly played by actors of skill and charisma. John Iacovelli’s scenic design, expertly lit by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, handsomely expresses the expansive frontier with a vast cyclorama showing the big sky of Wyoming. Huge rough-hewn monoliths left and right slide to frame the action, while sets representing various dwellings glide smoothly and quickly in and out to suggest interiors. Costumes by Angela Balogh Calin reflect the ever-changing fortunes of the characters. And Michael Roth’s soundscape and musical score, with its shimmering violins now strident, now melodic, accentuate the action marvelously.
“Abundance” is riveting in its action and presents a fascinating array of affection, harshness, cruelty, desperation and betrayal leavened with ripe bursts of humor. The show runs through November 15 at South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage in Costa Mesa.