Beth Henley's "Abundance" has returned to South Coast Repertory, where it had its world premiere in 1989. More than a quarter-century later, the play hasn't become a modern classic, but the scope and ambition are refreshing to encounter.
Best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy "Crimes of the Heart," Henley is more adventurous than her reputation for Southern whimsy might suggest. Indeed, her range extends far beyond the adorable grotesque of "The Miss Firecracker Contest," and in "Abundance" she takes on the expansionist spirit that brutally settled the American West.
Henley's focus, however, isn't on those pioneering men whose tales have been mythologized again and again in pop culture. The spotlight here is on the women who shared their journeys, sacrificing their dreams while supporting their husbands' testosterone-driven pursuit of Manifest Destiny.
This epic play, directed by Martin Benson at an engaging clip, begins with an encounter of two mail-order brides at a deserted depot in Wyoming, where their future husbands are expected to collect them.
Bess (Lily Holleman), as naïve as she is peppy, hopes the man she has been ardently corresponding with is handsome enough to fulfill her romantic longings. Macon (Paige Lindsey White), a dynamo determined to write her own happy ending, doesn't want to be limited by her role as a wife.
"I want to discover gold and be rich," she tells Bess. "I want to erect an ice palace and kill an Indian with a hot bullet."
The play tracks the many travails and occasional triumphs of these instant friends, who get a glimpse early on that their lives aren't going to unfold in accordance with the scripts their imaginations have been writing.
Bess is picked up by Jack (Adam Haas Hunter), the brother of her fiancé, who died choking on a piece of cornbread. The relief when Jack says that he will marry her is quickly overshadowed by the terror she feels over his abusive behavior.
Macon has problems of a different sort: William (Daniel Reichert), the man who retrieves her, is honorable and hardworking but he leaves her cold. Not even the glass eye he purchases to improve his looks makes a difference. This is a passionless relationship, built strictly on practicalities.
Henley's approach to the women's story is novelistic. The play begins in the 1860s and covers a span of 25 years. Macon is initially the more restless character, even though her marriage is more stable. She tries to lure Bess into running away together, but Bess doesn't want to give up on her indomitable marital hopes.
After Jack loses all his money in a dunderheaded deal, Bess and he are forced to move in with Macon and William, with unexpected erotic consequences. But just as this quartet is about to come undone by sexual tension, Bess is abducted by Native Americans, scalped and presumed dead.
Bess' return brings a change in fortune when Professor Elmore Crone (Larry Bates) decides her captivity tale would make an excellent book. Casting an African American actor in this minor role, a character who wants to make a killing off of white fear of the "monstrous savages," raises historical questions about racism that confound rather than elucidate Henley's play. (For nontraditional casting to work here, an actor of color would need to be cast in one of the four principal roles.)
The spiraling plot isn't entirely credible, crammed as it is into just slightly more than two hours of playing time. Where a novelist can devote chapters to the twists and turns of fate, a playwright must use shorthand.
One can try to go along with all the vicissitudes by imagining just how wild the wild, wild West must have been. But Henley compounds the farfetched nature of her story by shifting gears so abruptly in the psychology of her characters. They become different people, almost unrecognizable from their former selves. For a production to succeed, these alterations must be made believable. And that is where Benson's production, handsomely staged on a cabin-on-the-range set by John Iacovelli, falls short.
Until the play's final stretch, Holleman and White valiantly handle their characters' many mood swings and about-faces. Holleman's Bess, a songbird forbidden by her husband from singing, doesn't want to let go of her romantic illusions even though her husband is trampling them so wantonly. White's Macon, a cowgirl masquerading as a no-nonsense businesswoman, effectively sublimates her sensuality in work, but when desire is adulterously sparked she succumbs to the combustion.
Both appear flummoxed by the transformations of their characters at the end, but the problem stems more from the playwriting than from the acting. It's not that the changes are unpredictable but that the reactions to them seem out of character.
Reichert imbues William with a mournful intelligence, making him more attractive than he otherwise is. Hunter's Jack, a long-haired bully, struts about like a petulant rock star — his attitude earned not through talent but through male prerogative alone.
The deepest relationship in the play is undoubtedly between Bess and Macon. Henley tests this bond in a way that doesn't always seem emotionally true, but their story adds a new wrinkle to our understanding of the role women played in "winning" the West.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 Sundays. Ends Nov. 15.
Tickets: $22 to $74
Info: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes