By Amy J. Barry
Abundance at Hartford Stage takes place under an expansive Western sky and the issues it addresses are equally far-reaching, as well as intimately personal.
Written by Beth Henly, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Crimes of the Heart, the dramedy set in the Wyoming territory between the 1860s and '90s was first produced in New York in 2010.
Under Jenn Thompson's superb direction, Abundance follows the 25-year-long friendship and travails of two mail-order brides, Bess (Monique Vukovic) and Macon (Brenda Withers), at the end of the Civil War. The women responded to ads by men looking for wives to tend the fires and keep house.
The historic context of the play is that the Western expansion was transforming the frontier into domesticated farmland and ranches with the incentive of the Homestead Act, which gave (conditional) free land to settlers. At the same time, there was plenty of friction and danger between the displaced Native Americans and white settlers. Henly handsomely weaves a compelling fictional story into the factual backdrop.
Bess and Macon couldn't be more different. Bess is slight, blonde and timid, and desperate to please, with a sweet singing voice she's afraid to use. Macon is a tall, brunette wild child looking for adventure in the "Wild West." Vukovic and Withers are both well-suited to their roles, nicely balancing the dark and light sides of their nuanced characters.
The one thing the women do have in common is that both their husbands are losers. The man Bess is promised to is dead and his brother Jack (James Knight) comes to claim her in his stead. Her biggest fear was that he'd be ugly-he's attractive enough, but angry, abusive, and not too bright-and Knight captures the pathology of his moody character quite well.
Macon's husband William (Kevin Kelly) does meet her equally biggest fear that he'd be ugly. He's also clueless and annoying. Missing an eye he lost in a mining accident and wearing an eye patch, he creeps Macon out, giving her first his beloved dead wife's ring, and then a glass eye, as gifts. Kelly gives a fine performance as the both sympathetic and irritating character.
Due to fate and circumstances, the women end up switching roles.
After sizing up their new husbands, Macon urges Bess to go on a grand adventure together, but fearful Bess is reticent to leave. Finally when Jack's abuse and lack of food have made her desperate, she is eager to hit the road. But now Macon comes up with endless excuses why she can't.
Macon succumbs to the comfortable lifestyle of the New West-she turns out to be a savvy business partner with her husband, and as a result, complacent and no longer willing to take anything but financial risk.
She also succumbs to Jack's advances, one of the less plausible dimensions of the play-it's hard to imagine her falling for a guy dim enough to buy a worthless mine, sprinkled with gold dust.
And Bess is liberated, in a strange sense, by her horrific capture by Indians. After healing her broken spirit, she is no longer a victim. She's tough as nails and out for her own interests. She finds her voice, quite literally, rising to fame as both a singing sensation and with a memoir she wrote about her ordeal. Jack ironically ends up under her thumb-but he doesn't care, as long as there's money to be made.
Yet ultimately, it is when both women lose everything that is fleeting and of the material world and gain some inner wisdom that they are able to piece their friendship back together.
Praise is warranted for Wilson Chin's scenic design, Tracy Christensen's costumes, Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting, and Toby Jaguar's marvelous fiddle-playing sound track. They all capture the essence of the later-19th-century Western frontier.
Abundance is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, through Sunday, April 28. For tickets and performance schedule, call 860-525-5601 or visit www.hartfordstage.com.