KPBS AIRDATE: October 3, 1991
“I smell destiny,” says Macon Hill when she first meets Bess Johnson. The two are mail-order brides, starting new lives in the Wyoming Territory of 1868.
“Abundance,” a disturbing play by Beth Henley, inaugurates a new life for the Bowery Theatre, too, under its new name — Blackfriars — and its newly named space, the Bristol Court Playhouse, formerly the Kingston Playhouse. It’s an auspicious beginning.
The Bowery was always a cheeky little company, which, in 1989, became the West’s smallest professional, Equity theater. They’ve done some wonderful work, and they’re starting their tenth anniversary season with a bang. Literally. Once again, gunshots snap through the air in a searing production.
There’s plenty of history in the piece: the hardships of the Old West, the perils of Indians and mail-order husbands. But what makes this play and production work — even more than the one at South Coast Rep a few years back — is the point-blank focus on friendship, love and loyalty, timeless themes examined here with an unblinking eye.
Once again, director Ralph Elias and set designer Beeb Salzer have formed a felicitous collaboration. Both have approached the play in a very stylized fashion. Salzer’s set is spartan and suggestive: panels of blue and
grey, the merest silhouette of mountains, a concrete slab and a floor mounded with gravel. Hard surfaces everywhere; it was a tough life.
Elias’ direction plays upon the silhouettes and shadows, enhanced by J.A. Roth’s lighting design. Freezes in half-light punctuate and foreshadow scene breaks. The movements of props and set-pieces are visible, choreographed, eerily backed by Lawrence Czoka’s evocative sound design and composition. There’s a sort of hyper-real feeling to it all.
But the apparent simplicity of the technical support allows the relationships to stand out all the more, in bas-relief against a stark background. And Elias has the cast to pull it off and pull us in.
Linda Libby is a fireball as Macon, the hellion with all the dreams and hopes and expectations. “I savor the boundlessness of it all,” she proclaims of life and the West and her future. Compared to her, the young Bess Johnson seems colorless and naive, in a beautifully controlled performance by Allison Brennan. Their roles will shift dramatically over the 25 years traversed in the play; their bond, though twisted at times, is unseverable.
As for the men, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright doesn’t paint them in very flattering hues. John Blunt plays a frightening, mean-spirited husband to Bess, and Paul James Kruse a well-meaning but wimpy mate for Macon. Tim Reilly is an ambitious but flat, cardboard professor.
It is the women who shape this piece. This is the story of their adventures, their friendship and their symbiosis. The play is disquieting; the production is taut and intelligent.
Blackfriars deserves to start its new life with abundance.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.