Marriage in the Old West

Jessica John and Jacque Wilke. (Photos courtesy of Studio B Photo Productions.)

Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company’s production of Abundance isn’t produced by Moxie Theatre, but Moxie’s space is an appropriate fit for the organization. Moxie tells stories that feature intelligent women either onstage or behind the scenes.

Abundance has both, as the script is written by Beth Henley and follows well-developed female roles. Henley’s drama isn’t as well known as several of her other shows such as Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest. As she does in those plays, Henley uses plenty of offbeat humor. Yet, this particular story goes to darker places than some of her earlier work.

Set in the Wyoming Territory in the late 1860s, two mail-order brides, shy Bess Johnson (Executive Director, Jessica John) and larger-than-life Macon Hill (Jacque Wilke), quickly become fast friends. Their bond gets off to a strong start, but that can’t be said about either arranged marriage. Bess’ husband, (Artistic Director, Francis Gercke) quickly reveals himself to be a verbally and physically abusive lout with no redeemable qualities.

Macon’s one-eyed partner, William Curtis (Brian Mackey) tries to be a good man, although she feels nothing for him. As 25 years pass, the wives’ lives change in drastic ways that neither of them could ever predict.

Gercke and Producing Director Anthony Methvin stage the evening in a way that visually looks like an old-fashioned western, even if the script doesn’t resemble one. Samantha Vesco’s costumes and Ron Logan’s scenery don’t attempt to modernize or satirize the 19th century time period, yet their work forms an interesting contrast to Henley’s unconventional plot.

More out of the ordinary are AJ Paulin’s lighting and Matt Lescault-Wood’s audio. Early scenes from Paulin are straightforward, but night and day eventually seem to co-exist on different sides of the stage. Music played before the first scene, including “Go Go Cactus Man” from the classic anime series “Cowboy Bebop”, hint that this won’t be a typical night of entertainment.

When the introduction unfolds, theatregoers will quickly be intrigued by the main characters that inhabit Abundance. The most meaningful interactions are between Bess and Macon, because their connection remains very complicated. John and Wilke depict the ups and downs of the central bond with a real understanding of how friendship can change over time.

Gercke has an intimidating presence as Jack, while Mackey is often very funny playing the sad sack William. Both artists convincingly look and act as if they really lived in the 1800’s.

Henley’s writing is comprised of numerous vignettes that happen over two decades. They range from optimistic anecdotes to sequences that are upsetting to watch.

A problem with the episodic format is that Henley relies too much on having people talk about certain incidents, as opposed to having them visually represented at the theatrical space. Several situations could have left a bigger impression had Henley highlighted the hardships that the life partners go through. However, these moments still work well owing to the emotive performances from the stars.

Francis Gercke.

Abundance also features a flaw that exists in some of Henley’s other scripts outside of Crimes of the Heart. She takes too long to wrap up her ending.

There is a particular part where everything seems to be drawing to a conclusion. Instead, events continue for about another 15 minutes. Her coda does offer a bittersweet epilogue, but Henley takes too long getting to that point.

This doesn’t imply that Abundance should be missed. What carries the play are the people that Henley created. Every individual that audiences encounter is written and performed with great care, color and respect.

Pacing problems and flaws aside, Henley makes up for the issues with a great deal of empathy towards Bess and Macon. It’s the kind of care and compassion that explains why Henley is such a highly regarded playwright.

[box] Show times are Thursdays at 8:00 p.m, Fridays at 8:00 p.m, Saturdays at 2:00 p.m and 8:00 p.m, Sundays at 2:00 p.m and Mondays at 7:00 p.m. [/box]



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