Two women arrive at a remote rail station in 1860s Wyoming Territory, drawn there as mail-order brides to start lives anew in this wind-howling, big-sky frontier. Upon meeting, they immediately become best friends, confidents, and sources of support — not the typical beginning of most epics of the old West. But Abundance, as told by Beth Henley (of Crimes in the Heart fame), does not follow normal script of such tales. Yes, there are the fist-fights, drawn guns, scalped innocents, whisky-drinking, and even skirts rising above heads that we expect in our American westerns. But in this telling, the struggles, triumphs, defeats, and resolutions of these two women, not the men around them, will define the heroism of the West.
Our brides Bess and Macon do meet their husbands-to-be, but all is not has been dreamed from the few letters that initially got them on the trains west. They each begin their wedded lives treated more like indentured servants than partners in life. Bess’s abusive husband is an angry, lazy, (but rather ruggedly handsome) ne’er-do-well who forbids her to sing. While Macon’s fate is a bit better in that her husband does seek to please her with gifts, her disappointment in this older, one-eyed, farmer is difficult for her to hide when her wedding ring is his dead first wife’s and an anniversary card is signed as if from his favorite cow. The few delights of these two wives come in simple things they do with each other: sharing stories, learning how to whistle, and enjoying the magic of the vast array of prairie stars at night. As the years pass, calamities mount for both couples; and their lives become complicatedly entangled with a non-too-subtle affair, a kidnapping, and a dramatic shift in fortunes, resulting in the women’s own strong bond being tested. Along the way, the men of their lives become meaningless characters in these two women’s stories. Ms. Henley’s noble saga does become a tall-tale yarn at times, and even shares a bit too much with the exaggerated, ‘Oil-Can Harry’ melodrama stages. But the nobility of story does remain among the more ridiculous: the woman and her role in establishing roots in these forlorn plains.
On this particularly small stage in a theatre with obviously small budget, this epic is provided an authentic feel through a clever set by Steve Coleman. His skeletal houses move and shake with the prairie winds and the actors’ fits and fights. Coupled with costumes that feel right out of the ol’ West, the mood is believably set and ready for the cast to work its magic. Each actor convinces us of the many strange nuances of each character, even to include the insertion of a glass eye. But, to a person, each actor also too often over shouts his/her way through the script. Given that the audience is only a few feet away, this over-projection does become tiring and distracting.
In the end, we are left with the two women once again alone under the great sky of Wyoming. Much has happened to them in the twenty-five years since they met, lots of it not too happy; but it is the simple joy of a shared whistle that reminds them of the bits of joy they have shared and of the bond they still feel. Yes, this is not your typical tale of the Old West; and we as audience leave glad to have seen another side of the story.
Rating: 3 E’s
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