Jeff Carpenter's 40-foot cyclorama painting and Kevin Brown's Ry Cooder-like slide guitar music for Abundance place the audience firmly in the land of the Big Sky from the moment they enter Riverside's Studio Two. But Beth Henley's play about two mail-order brides in the American west of the 1860s dwells more upon the protagonists' failure to attain such grandeur, or any kind of fulfilment. The play itself, too, clatters around inside Henley's chosen themes and subject matter like a marble in an empty biscuit-tin.
Bess Johnson and Macon Hill's lifelines cross in opposite directions. At their first meeting at a Wyoming staging-post on their way to marry neighbouring pioneer farmers, Bess is a simple-minded romantic, Macon feistily determined to reinvent herself as an adventurer. Neither gets her wish: Macon settles into moderate material comfort but a loveless marriage with a man whose Christmas present to her is a glass eye for himself, in the hope that this might make her less "allergic to him physically"; Bess, finding her husband-to-be dead, marries his brutish, parasitical brother who smothers her hopes and joys with all the force of a steel cowpat.
Myriam Cyr is skilled at playing diffident types, but throughout the first act her Bess scarcely utters a line without either a gasp or a distressed tremolo. Maryam d'Abo as Macon likewise overdoes the gung-ho aspect in her first scenes (as she does the accent, cramming five vowel sounds into the word "seen"), but settles down as her life grows duller. Herein lies one of the difficulties for director Lisa Forrell: Henley has written what is effectively a grinding hour-long prelude to the final five minutes of the first act and the dramatic reversals of the second. Forrell's direction captures the agonised privation, both physical and emotional, of those four years covered in Act One, but cannot make it an attractive proposition to watch, even with the periodic hints of greater preoccupations that come when a poetical phrase bursts forth from the otherwise mundane lines.
Bess's disappearance just before the interval, and reappearance just after it, several years later after becoming the bride of a chief of the Oglala Sioux, fires the drama. The iron has entered her soul (as Macon, in her absence, has entered her marriage bed), and she sets out to peddle a version of her story which is not only sensationalised, but trades on Macon's old dreams of adventure, as if she has stolen the other woman's soul. Even these developments are curiously lacking in engagement, eliciting a horror more intellectual than emotional at the changes wrought in Bess. Henley's script nods towards the demonisation of the Indians in popular American mythology of the time; however, by leaving Bess's betrayal of the Oglala implicit she not only avoids the swamp of political worthiness but also sells the play's deeper content short.
The production's posters feature a blurb describing Abundance as "a theatrical Thelma And Louise". In fact, with its reversals of fortune, it is more like a nineteenth-century, Plains States Rich And Famous – but who remembers Rich And Famous?
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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