by Tulis McCall
When I was a kid watching Westerns, and folks all piled into their teenie-weenie wagons (and you should see one of these up close someday), the idea that they were embarking on a death-defying journey, number one, and that they were never going to see their family and friends again, number two, never really registered on me. With this revival of Abundance, TACT’s oct recent production now at Theatre Row, Beth Henley, brushes that ignorance aside and takes us directly to the heart of the beast.
Macon (Kelly McAndrew) and Bess (Tracy Middendorf) meet at a stagecoach stop in Nowhere, Wyoming Territory on a spring morning in the late 1860’s. Within minutes we know all we need to know. These women have the clothes on their backs and whatever they can carry. They have come West to marry men they have never met. Bess has been waiting for 10 days and traded her very buttons for an extra night’s lodging. In other words: life back home has not worked out, and they are staking their claim on a future they can shape. They are throwing away memories – even small ones like what is their favorite color. It is a vast and overwhelming scene.
The two do not know, however, that this is the last best day of their lives. The rest is a slow slide downward. Their pleasant meeting is shattered by Jack Flan (Todd Lawson), the brother of the man to whom Bess was betrothed. That man is dead, and Jack is here to claim Bess as his bride, sort of the way a man would take on a stray horse – why not take it if it is waiting to be took. Bess has nowhere to go so she follows him home to a cabin of lice and ticks. Will Curtis (Ted Koch) appears directly and lays claim to Macon who assures him she is ready to ride.
It turns out that the two couples are neighbors – as much ask one can be in Wyoming. While the men carry on with pulling a living out of the ground, these two women, submit to their lives. Their friendship is the only spot of light anywhere. Jack is abusive and Will is dull as a box of rocks. Things slog along for all of them – with Macon and Will being the more sensible and successful of the two couples. Bess and Jack move in with them when their own home burns down and somehow never move out. It is a stagnant and restless foursome. Bess wants to run away like Macon promised, but Macon is settled. While Will works, Jack pretty much does nothing. The air is being sucked out of this corner of Wyoming. On the night of their second mutual anniversary, however, Bess is kidnapped by Indians. Oops.
Fast forward five years and she is returned to the threesome still living in one home. Bess has transformed into something unidentifiable. Her language is stilted (an odd choice – how do you forget your language in only 5 years) and she is in full blown PTSD. She requires chains to keep her at home. Within a few months Professor Elmore Crome (Jeff Talbott) appears on the scene and invites Bess to collaborate on a book. Bess, who has been more or less mute and eager to escape her old friends, responds to his suggestions that because of her experience she knows about “treachery”. Yes she does, and she will write her book.
As the book becomes a success, everything goes ass over teakettle. Macon and Beth’s fortunes are reversed big time without so much as a nod from Bess. Turns out the treachery she knew was in the form of Macon and Jack’s affair that was under her nose. With her success, Jack is now the supplicant. Macon is left jealous of Bess, who stole much of Macon’s personality to build her new self. Will leaves and the bank forecloses on the farm.. Macon is without a husband or a home. In a final scene the two are united 15 tears later St.Louis. Bess is coming to the end of her stint on the talk circuit and Bess is coming to the end of her life. They find solace in simply being together, the sound of one another’s voice, and the chance to be heard once again. Once again they find each other.
The story of these two women has stayed with me since seeing this production. Sad to say the production stayed with me as well. This is a nuanced play, and the direction and the performances here, with the exception of Middendorf, are anything but. Lawson’s Jack is supposed to be a dangerous man from whom Macon cannot stay away. Think of Stanley in A Streetcar Named DesireA. Instead Lawson plays two notes, sullen and threatening. The mutual sexual tension between Jack and Macon, that we are supposed to see coming from a mile away, is not revealed until the moment it explodes onstage. So what was it Bess saw that made her so vengeful? Koch’s Curtis is on the dull side, and lacks the many colors of the man who keeps getting up when fate knocks him down. Even his departure causes barely a ripple. McAndrew’s has some lovely moments, but most of them are offset by a sort of flibbity-jibbet physical presence that eventually becomes exhausting to watch. The lack of depth permeates the entire production. I had to piece a lot of the story together after the fact. Jenn Thompson seems to have overlooked some serious fine tuning opportunities.
Abundance is an almost allegorical story. It is immense and as big as the Wyoming sky. It is about hope, the lengths to which people will go to stay alive, the deals we make with the devil, and our refusal to give up. It is the story of two women risking flight. It is meant to take our breath away. It is meant to make us care about these people who could be our ancestors. But on this stage (and in spite of the extraordinary set by Wilson Chin) these characters’ souls never surface, so our hearts are never reached.
ABUNDANCE by Beth Henley, Directed by Jenn Thompson
WITH Ted Koch (Will Curtis), Todd Lawson (Jack Flan), Kelly McAndrew) Macon Hill, Tracy Middendorf (Bess Johnson) and Jeff Talbott (Professor Elmore Crome)
Set by Wilson Chin, Lights by Philip Rosenberg, Costumes by Tracy Christensen.
TACT (The Actors Theatre Company) presents Abundance through March 28 at the Beckett Theater at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, Clinton; 212-239-6200, tactnyc.org.