by: Paulanne Simmons
That the world is filled with wealth and pleasure, but they may not be equally distributed is just one of the lessons in Beth Henley’s 1989 play, Abundance, but it may be the one that resonates most clearly in its 2015 TACT revival. This is perhaps a sign of the times, but it is also a result of Henley’s brilliant writing as well as co-artistic director Jenn Thompson’s effective staging and the uniformly excellent cast.
The drama, set in 1860s Wyoming, takes a jaundiced view of the American frontier and the white men who pushed out the native populations in order to conquer it. Kelly McAndrew and Tracy Middendorf play two mail order brides, the former Macon Hill, a robust, outspoken, optimistic adventurer; the latter Bess Johnson, a timid, unstable soul who is fully prepared to be a submissive wife.
Macon’s husband, Will Curtis (Ted Koch) turns out to be a one-eyed, widowed farmer, loyal, tactless and something of a buffoon. But Bess’s intended died while she was in transit, and so his brother, Jack Flan (Todd Lawson), a sadistic no-account, informs Bess that he will marry her.
The play chronicles in heartrending and, sometimes, amusing detail the vicissitudes of the two couples. The rains don’t arrive, the Indians are an ever-present danger, money is unwisely invested, love does not flourish and desire erupts where it shouldn’t.
So far, Abundance may sound like a typical Western soap opera. Henley, however, wrote a play filled with surprises. Over the twenty-five year span Abundance covers, many changes occur that can be neither anticipated nor fully explained, except perhaps by the gospels: “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”
This reversal of fortunes is the source of much dark humor as we see people behave in all their hypocritical glory. It also makes us contemplate the uncertain nature of life and our own vulnerability. Or, to go back to Christian theology: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Because the characters go through so many transformations, Abundance is particularly challenging to all the actors providing them with a unique opportunity to display their talents.
Fortunately, everyone in this revival, including Jeff Talbott, who plays Professor Elmore Crome, the catalyst who makes those tables turn, uses these challenges as a springboard to moving and insightful performances. There is talent here in abundance.
Abundance runs through March 28 at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42 Street,