NEW YORK (AP) — In sagas about the American Wild West, pioneers were brave and true-hearted cowboys and homesteaders tamed the savage land while their womenfolk happily tended hearth and family.
Playwright Beth Henley provided a much less romantic perspective in her 1989 feminist Western drama, ironically titled "Abundance."
The polished revival that opened Sunday night off-Broadway at the Beckett Theatre, presented by The Actors Company Theatre, is staged with restraint and wit by co-artistic director Jenn Thompson.
It's a dark look at 25 years in the gritty lives of a quartet of 1860s Wyoming settlers. Twists and turns, often melodramatic, are presented simply by a strong cast, in a series of vignettes laden with insights about human nature, friendship, and the dream-killing effects of tough circumstances.
Henley is best-known for quirky Southern comedies like "Crimes of the Heart," for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. In "Abundance," tragicomic undertones are showcased by Thompson's effective guidance and spare settings.
Things begin hopefully, with a friendship that develops between two anxious mail-order brides, (Tracy Middendorf and Kelly McAndrew), who meet at a stagecoach depot and bond while sharing their hopes about the unknown men who have sent for them.
Romantic, senstive Bess Johnson is given tremulous naivete mixed with determination by Middendorf, while McAndrew is spirited and tomboyish as Macon Hill, who spouts things like, "I savor the boundlessness of it all!" and is wide open to adventure in this brand new territory.
First of many disappointments: neither of their menfolk is a great prize. Bess' tender-hearted suitor is replaced by his mentally unstable, crass and selfish brother, Jack, (Todd Lawson, superbly "mean as a snake"), while Macon's husband, Will, is a hapless, dull but decent, one-eyed widower (a sympathetic, slump-shouldered portrayal by Ted Koch).
But the women try to make the best of their lot, becoming neighbors and brightening one another's lives. Macon discovers a flair for good business decisions, while Bess clings to their girlish plan to escape their dreary husbands. Over time, we see the rise and fall of dreams and fortunes, along with lusty betrayals and drastic personal changes wrought by the harsh landscape, tough economic times and bad choices.
The most affecting moments are the simple conversations between the two women. What most touches the heart is Henley's depiction of the strength and support that true friendship can provide.