Asked what was the seminal impulse behind her play “Abundance,” currently on stage at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, playwright Beth Henley said “I’ve always been interested in what happens with people’s dreams.”
What happens? Life happens. And to dramatize that point, Henley has hit brilliantly upon a specific historical moment: the great American Western expansion of the second half of the 19th century when Easterners by the tens of thousands boldly carried their dreams of a better life into the vast Western Frontier.
It was a time of genius and folly and hubris and courage. It was the birth, really, of the so-called American Dream that we still tenaciously cling to.
In the American Myth of the West, The Dream always delivers on its promises. Sure, the struggle was brutal, but if you worked fiercely, and sacrificed sufficiently and played by the rules (at least as they applied in this brand new place), the dream was all but sure to deliver.
But what about when it didn’t? And what about the less material dreams—those of Romance, True Love, Freedom, Adventure? Life happened to those dreams, too.
We’re in Wyoming Territory, 1868. Bess (the superbly focused Lily Holleman) and Macon (an exuberant, nuanced
Paige Lindsey White), are mail-order brides awaiting the arrival of their soon-to-be husbands at a lonely prairie outpost.
Bess is the naïf, a true believer in the certainty of True Love. Macon is in love with Adventure Itself. As far as she’s concerned, this arranged marriage may be no more than a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
“I’d clip the wings off an angel if they’d help me fly!” she proclaims. Near opposites, they nevertheless form an instant symbiotic friendship. Together, their dreams will come true. Grit, guts and gumption — what more do they need?
But Real Life has other ideas. Bess’ man, Jack (the fearlessly truthful Adam Haas Hunter), turns out to be a selfish cur with the kindness of a rattlesnake. But — wouldn’t you know it — enough sex appeal to bring both women to their knees.
Macon’s groom Will (the painfully funny, breathtakingly real Daniel Reichert) is a tender-hearted, but dull widower. No love, alas, blossoms in that homestead. (An early-on irony of Fate is that each woman would be a lot better off if hitched to the other’s husband.) Will and Macon thrive; but Bess and Jack nearly perish in the punishing winter. Macon and Will take the struggling couple into their own home. Needless to say, complications result.
Years pass, and Destiny plays its ironic games, like a cat toying with so many hapless mice. Roles reverse. Friendships turn to bitter rivalry. Choices are made and prices are paid. Fortunes are made and lost on a single decision. Bad people prosper. Good people die.
Director Martin Benson exhibits his usual wizardry with a visually splendid production. He has coaxed exquisitely full, centered performances from his perfectly-cast company. Production values are all first-rate, but special mention to Michael Roth’s marvelous fiddle-infused score: Mirroring the story arc, the music evolves from Copland-esque promise to a troubled, Charles Ives-ian ambiguity. This is a show with abundant entertainment value.
Henley ingeniously plays to our expectations of what a rip-roaring Tale of the Wild West is “supposed” to be — her full-throated language is bold with gorgeous imagery; we are rapt with suspense at the epic, near-melodramatic storytelling.
But she also shatters those expectations: Who are the “good guys” and the “bad guys?” What happened to that cherished “Pioneer Spirit” that’s supposed to be in there? She seems to be saying: these were individuals out there: flawed and contradictory; selfish and mendacious. All of us are, at best, survivors of the mighty winds of Providence. Our treasured notion that we are masters of our own destiny is, well, pretty much a fairy tale.
This is a decidedly un-American point of view, at first unsettling given its setting and milieu. But there is bravery and a sense of newness here, too, and as such “Abundance” feels like an important work.
Is it stark, grim, sobering? Perhaps. But also touching and very funny. Is it depressing? Oddly enough, we leave the theatre exhilarated, probably by virtue of having learned something that feels like the truth.
“Abundance” runs through Nov. 15. For tickets, visit SCR.org.