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A CurtainUp Review
"My husband's dead, and I never even got to meet him!"

(L-R) Kelly McAndrew and Tracy Middendorf (Photo: Marielle Solan Photography)
The Western genre may not be readily associated with a story about two mail-order brides, but Beth Henley's Abundance is hardly concerned with expectations. An aggressively revisionist work, the surprising play, currently at The Actors Company Theatre with Jenn Thompson directing, takes American mythology as a ripe target for deconstruction, foregrounding a female relationship in a story about the promise, and the dark side, of the West and the American dream.

The play centers around Bess (Tracy Middendorf) and Macon (Kelly McAndrew), who meet shortly after their arrival in Wyoming, as they anxiously wait to meet their new husbands. The timid Bess is lured by her romanticized vision of a loving man awaiting her under a wide open sky. Macon, who seems the bolder of the two, is more interested in the prospect of freedom and adventure, and she fantasizes about writing a novel based on the experiences she hopes to have.

Bess's hopes are quickly dashed by the arrival of the surly Jack (Todd Lawson), the brother of the man she was arranged to marry. He informs her that his brother has died and he will take her as a wife instead. Meanwhile, Macon's new husband Will (Ted Koch), who recently lost both his first wife and one of his eyes, is hardly what she expected either.

The play follows the women across a sweeping period of twenty-five years as their struggle to adjust to and survive in their new situations tests them individually and as friends. Early on, Abundance drags a bit: the timing of scenes is stilted and abrupt while the progression of the plot seems slow. Once the play gets going, though, it's engaging and unexpected.

Henley's script and Thompson's direction create a world that is both recognizable within our nation's past and otherworldly—though the moments that appear to be most fantastical are grounded in reality—and characters who are as sympathetic as they are deeply flawed.

McAndrew and Middendorf play off each other well in the main roles, cultivating two carefully distinguished characters whose friendship might not make sense but for their circumstances. In fact, these circumstances also come to be the biggest threat to this friendship, and the two actors don't shy away from embracing the severe sides of their roles in addition to their more appealing traits. McAndrew's Macon exudes a natural confidence, and when that confidence is shaken, it's quite affecting; likewise when Middendorf's Bess checks her loyalty to her friend.

Henley lavishes most attention on the female characters, using the male roles more as means to various ends. Lawson's Jack is impressively unsavory, while Koch brings an unexpected earnestness to the rough-around-the-edges Will. The relationship between Macon and Will develops with interesting nuances, whereas Jack's feelings towards Bess are clear from the beginning of the play and come to feel frustratingly static soon after—another factor in the play's slow start.

Special praise is warranted for the show's technical designers whose contributions here are particularly rich. Wilson Chin's set, with a mountainous backdrop that wraps around the stage and a sloped central platform, maximizes open space and manipulates scale to create a stage picture appropriately evocative of the expansive West. That this land can be either pregnant with possibility or hauntingly barren is nicely conveyed by Philip Rosenberg's lighting and Toby Algya's sound design. Algya's original music is also a saving grace during the numerous, and sometimes lengthy, scene changes. Finally, the carefully-designed costumes by Tracy Christensen often provide nonverbal insight into the current status of a character.

Despite the time it takes to get off the ground, Abundance comes to be an intriguing play, and TACT's production is undeniably a strong one. Thompson's belief in the work is evinced by her decision to direct the play a second time (the first was at Hartford Stage in 2013). Here, she uses the powerful duo of McAndrew and Middendorf to full potential, while the production is greatly enriched by the strong technical contributions of her creative team. And so, when all's said and done, the reasons to see Abundance are plentiful.

Editor's note: Beth Henley's most famous play is, of course, her quirky Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart. Here's a link to the most recent review at the Roundabout
Here too are links to other Henley plays we've reviewed:
The Jacksonian , the most recent play generally viewed as her most successful since Crimes. . .
Impossible Marriage
The L-Plays
Family Week

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 Talbot (Professor Elmore Crome)
Set Design: Wilson Chin
Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg
Costume Design: Tracy Christensen
Sound Design and Original Music: Toby Algya
Production Stage Manager: Erin Gioia Albrecht
Production Manager: Cate DiGirolamo
Technical Direction: Stephen Sury
Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Burns
Presented by The Actors Company Theater
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues)
Tickets: $20-$58; or (212) 239-6200
From 2/17/2015; opened 3/1/2015; closing 3/28/2015
Performance times: Tuesday–Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 2/26/2015 performance
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