Center Theater

Abundance was something the pioneers knew a lot about: sudden wealth or squalor, plentiful human hardships and natural disasters. Beth Henley’s wondrous new work depicts that embarrassment of experience in–well, abundant detail. And in next to no time the Center Theater’s small stage takes on an almost cinematic scope.

Her first historical play, Abundance conspicuously omits Henley’s usual array of dotty Dixie stereotypes, a big change for the author of Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest. With authentic detail and convincing characters, it’s easily her tenderest work to date despite the grim setting and tale. The script is marked by fine story telling, yet Henley is equally adept at exploring the contradictions and reversals that keep her women alive.

Abundance also redresses the mostly male legends of the wild West. For every gun-slinging desperado, stagecoach robber, or bounty hunter, there was a woman trying to civilize things before the he-men could tear them apart. But these women aren’t just passive reactors to men’s madness–they play an active role in shaping the west.

The play traces the checkered lives of two mail-order brides, Bess Johnson and Macon Hill, over a troubled quarter-century after they get posted to the Wyoming Territory in 1868. We learn nothing about their pasts–it’s as if the moment they headed west the slate was wiped clean. Their links with the land and the hopes they lose along the way are their history. The women keep each other sane in the hard times that come to them.

Macon is joyous and expansive–destiny’s child, hungry for experience, both real and imagined. Declaring herself “drunk with Western fever,” eager to sample “oceans of plenty,” and intent on putting it all into a book, Macon can’t wait to “see the elephant,” a period phrase meaning to taste life. Bess is timid, unschooled, and gawky, eager just to meet the stranger who wrote her three lovely letters extolling the big sky and her new life.

But it turns out that that man is dead, and Bess marries his mean, useless brother instead. Jack Flan is a born failure who forbids her the simplest pleasures and loses their money in a bad investment. But out of gratitude and lust Bess loves him anyway. Macon marries William Curtis, a decent but unappealing man who loves her so much he buys a glass eye. She still feels “allergic” to him, yet pitches in to make their farm a success.

Adversity repeatedly throws the two couples together, and the women find themselves tested to the limit of their endurance, Bess by Jack’s blatant desire for Macon and Macon by crop failures, bank repossessions, and her ambivalence toward Jack, which combines moral loathing with sexual interest.

The greatest ordeal comes when the increasingly restless Bess gets the adventure of her life. Captured by Indians, she returns after five years, an Indian marriage, and two children to be imprisoned by Macon, who is ashamed of and wants to hide the scars on Bess’s face. But Bess suddenly becomes notorious for her life among the “heathens” and ends up writing the book Macon wanted to. She hits the lecture circuit–and the bottle–denouncing the Indians and extolling manifest destiny, though she admits that those five years gave her a magical link to the land.

Macon too is mutilated, but emotionally. William leaves her, and soon sickness undermines her spirit. Bess realizes that the one man she had a chance of loving was the letter writer she never met. Ending up wiser than they ever wanted to be, both women rise above their pain in a final poignant meeting, easily the most beautiful scene Henley has written.

It’s not just that Henley fills Abundance with all the raw specifics of hardship–a starving Bess picks wheat stalks from a blanket to stop her hunger, William is unable to shoot his dying ox while it stares at him, Macon joyfully receives two mail-order pillows. Henley builds the pain into a remarkable testament to the two women’s resilience, though nothing here is as simple or sweet as we’d like it to be–a tribute to Henley’s uncommon honesty in this work.

Perfectly framed by Kurt Sharp’s gorgeous set design (a panorama of the prairie horizon sweeps the stage), Center Theater’s local premiere is as resilient and engrossing as the script. Director Dan LaMorte crafts his company’s best work ever, mining each moment for its emotion, especially in the richly textured women’s roles.

Robin Witt as Bess shows the same feel for Henley’s complex, quirky women she demonstrated as Cassidy Smith in Center’s excellent The Lucky Spot. She takes Bess through some astonishing changes–her clumsy but radiant anticipation of happiness, her rage over being unhappily married in two unlike but misogynistic cultures, her self-destruction as she becomes a freak show for the fickle public. And though the role of Macon has a smaller range, Kathy Scambiatterra richly conveys the character’s enormous thirst for experience–a life force that, sadly, runs up against others even bigger. You won’t see two more impressive portrayals on one Chicago stage these days.

The men’s roles seem pale and emotionally mute by comparison, but Marc Vann makes the most of William’s silent appeals for affection, and Ed Bevan’s Jack is sinisterly attractive, effortlessly evolving from his wife’s bully to her toady. As an early literary agent, R.J. Coleman smoothly depicts the easily venal bunco artist who promotes Bess’s tabloid lectures.

Lynn Sandberg’s well-wrought period costumes nicely chart both character and fashion changes, and Chris Phillips’s wonderful lighting dapples the stage with all the moods of daylight, moonlight, and the different seasons.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/JoAnn Carney.