KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 28, 1999
Never let it be said that San Diego doesn’t have theatrical abundance. This week, “Forever Plaid” celebrated its 1000th performance. And for the ninth consecutive year, we get treated to the delectable smorgasbord that is the Actors Festival, two weeks of 27 new and seasoned works that involve more than 90 local theater artists. And then, of course, we’ve got “Abundance,” the play — up at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
It was written by the Mississippi-born Beth Henley, who, in 1981, was the first woman in a quarter-century to win a Pulitzer Prize, and it was for her first play, “Crimes of the Heart.” “Abundance” was written in 1990, and it follows in the Henley tradition of creating bizarre characters who survive their disastrous experiences in outlandish ways.
This time, adversity in encountered in the Old West. We meet Macon and Bess just when they meet each other, sharing their first big adventure – heading out to the Wyoming Territory in 1868 as mail-order brides. Their lifetime of hardship and friendship begins when Bess learns that her husband has died in an accident, and is to be nuptially replaced by his mean-spirited brother. She is determined to be a dutiful wife. Macon is stuck with a kindly, portly, one-eyed mate, whom she detests from minute one. Over the next 25 years, the women’s fortunes will ebb and flow, they will be separated by betrayal, treachery, unimaginable escapades – and they will be repeatedly reunited by loyalty and love.
Henley doesn’t paint the prettiest picture of human nature. She’s unsentimental about the bondage of marriage, but she’s positively apostolic about the bonds of friendship. In two hours’ time, she offers us a little history, and an unblinking look at the perils of pioneer life, from cold to draught to Indian attacks, from scalping and spousal abuse. And yet, there are also spurts of humor in this disturbing and sometimes heartbreaking play.
As guest director at North Coast Repertory Theatre, Christina Courtenay, along with scenic designer Marty Burnett, has shot for the simple, stark and suggestive. The set is composed of several rotating columns that transform, with Peter Smith’s evocative lighting, from gray weathered shingle to red, from a blue, cloudy expanse to a twinkling, starry night-sky. It’s an aptly minimalist and chimerical approach to the piece, underscored by Michael Roth’s marvelous original score, which traces the passage of time in its subtle evolution from toe-tapping country fiddle to more urban, turn-of-the-century rhythms and melodies. The only thing that isn’t perfectly in place is the performances.
As Macon, the hellion with a wagonload of dreams and expectations, Gina Toracilla is terrific. She’s spunky and effusive, no-nonsense and flirtatious, invincible and indomitable. In sharp contrast, Bess has to appear weak, colorless and naïve, a mite odd, a bit simple and overly sentimental. But D. Candis Paule seems too strong from the outset, and this limits the arc her character must take. We don’t see the early fear and fragility that will make Bess’ journey so dramatic. As her husband, Tom Liles isn’t vile enough at the beginning, or servile enough at the end. He’s more a whiny loser than a careless and cruel abuser. But Jim Johnston provides ballast, as he so often does, with his effortlessly believable portrayals. He makes Macon’s husband Bill more about honesty, hard work and misguided fidelity than lapdog wimpiness, as I’ve seen in other productions.
I have a feeling that this “Abundance” will grow into its abundance. They haven’t hit the mark yet, but I sense that this powerful ensemble will sharpen its focus and ultimately, over the course of the run, hit the bull’s eye. As the irrepressible Macon Hill would say, “I smell destiny.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.