By Beth Henley, through April 28
Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, (860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org
Abundance opens in the 1860s with a meeting at a forlorn station stop somewhere in Wyoming territory between two mail-order brides awaiting the arrival of the men they've agreed to marry but have never met. They are a study in contrasts. Bess (Monique Vukovic) is meek and despairing; Macon (Brenda Withers) is vital and primed for adventure. As different as can be, the proximity of the homesteads on which they fetch up means they come to rely on each other. That's particularly true as trouble erupts in each marriage. Bess marries Jack (James Knight), an abusive brute; Macon weds William (Kevin Kelly), a disfigured widower whom she cannot love.
Henley's dialogue crackles with personality. Despite the dire dilemmas and the historical setting, the audience laughs as often as it winces in the early going. You can't help but root for these characters — or at least three of the four: as written, Jack is just too simply drawn as a villain.
Time rolls by, visiting prosperity on one homestead and starvation on the other. The women do what they can to help each other survive. But as the decades peel away, fortunes reverse and characters evolve. Act one ends with a surprise: one woman disappears, abducted by Native Americans.
We never see her life as a captive, but years later, when she is "rescued," she is physically marked and psychically much altered. Her absence first unbalances the remaining triangle of characters, who then must adjust to her return. That return also introduces a fifth character, Elmore (John Leonard Thompson) — a professor from back East intrigued by Indian ways.
By this time, the two women have each trespassed on the other's terrain: their bond has been broken with betrayals; estrangement results. The play ends some 25 years after it began, with the two women alone on stage together as they were at the top of the show — but bruised and battered by the lives they've led.
Praise must go to playwright Beth Henley for telling a story of such scope. There are way too few female buddy plays — that is, ones that center on a genuine friendship between women, especially across time, and especially where men figure but where romantic relations with them don't overwhelm a central focus on the bond between the women. Henley won a Pulitzer back in 1981 for Crimes of the Heart, about a trio of sisters, and has a handful of plays that take up women's relationships, often in a Southern setting. Abundance was written in 1990, and I'm surprised it doesn't get more play: the roles are really rich, what actors call "chewy." The historical setting is refreshingly different without being ponderously educational. The relationships have heft and texture; the dialogue is snappy. Henley resists valorizing any of her characters or prettifying the toll of experience on them. This play takes us to a place and time we can't access except through imagination, and I, for one, really enjoyed the trip.