The U.S. west was hard on everyone in the 19th century – most especially women, some of whom were brought in from points east to serve (and I do mean serve) as wives for lonely bachelors who had settled there earlier.
In “Abundance,” playwright Beth Henley – via Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company – introduces us to two very different young mail-order brides plopped down in the wilds of the Montana territory in the late 1860s.
Bess Johnson (Jessica John) is shy and naive but lovely and hopeful.
She’s been waiting 10 days for her prince to come and claim her.
She was convinced to show up in this (pardon the expression) godforsaken hole by three letters from her intended.
She carries them with her, having been particularly swayed by a description of the western sky as “the largest he has witnessed.”
While Bess is waiting, an adventurous, whistling whirlwind named Macon Hill (Jacque Wilke, in a sparkling performance) arrives, announcing that she’s come to “see the elephant.”
“I savor the boundlessness of it all. The wild flavor. I’m drunk with western fever,” Macon says.
Whether or not opposites attract, Bess and Macon will become friends – and need each other – especially after they meet their soon-to-be husbands.
Jack Flan (Francis Gercke) is the first groom to arrive. He is the brother of the writer of those letters, a violent, illiterate lout lacking any refinement who tells Bess he’ll marry her because his brother died in an accident.
When Bess starts to cry, Jack’s response is to “knock her down.” He won’t tolerate crying, he says, and unlike his brother, he doesn’t like singing either.
Macon’s intended is one-eyed Will Curtis (Brian Mackey), who at least seems kindly and says he will order a glass eye so Macon won’t have to look at his eye patch.
Will gives Macon a ruby ring, which she loves until he tells her it belonged to his deceased wife. She gives it back.
“Abundance” (an ironic name for a play about this vast but empty wasteland) traces the rising and ebbing fortunes of this quartet over the next 25 years.
The first thing Macon wants to do is flee. She can’t stand Will and hankers to see the ocean, but she can’t talk Bess into breaking her promise and coming along.
Instead, she stays, they marry and time passes.
Fortunes (and relationships) wax and wane, Mother Nature has her way with the land, and the first act ends with a shocking event that will change everything.
I won’t reveal it, but after all is said and done, what remains is four people with resolve, determination and the will to survive.
Sort of like scrappy little Backyard Renaissance, an excellent but still homeless company that pops up in other venues from time to time to remind us just how good theater can be.
Gercke’s Jack is the kind of hotheaded s.o.b. any reasonable woman would want to get as far away from as possible. He is so convincing I almost cringed every time I saw him.
Mackey’s Will is at least civil, and knows about cattle, crops and survival in the west. He means well, but leaves a bit to be desired in the excitement department.
John and Wilque are simply sensational as Bess and Macon, two opposites confronted with deprivation, betrayal and broken dreams who nonetheless persist.
Ron Logan’s sparse set design gives the feeling of both of space and bleakness, with the brown floor and the pale blue sky.
Samantha Vesco’s worn-look costumes fit right in, and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design (complete with cattle lowing in the distance) and AJ Paulin’s lighting add to the atmosphere.
Backyard Renaissance does it again, with an excellent production of this very fine play. Thanks to host Moxie Theatre for the space.
“Abundance” plays through April 2, 2017 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard.
Tuesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm