Monday, October 12, 2015

The Not-So Old West

by Kat Zukaitis
Paige Lindsey White and Lily Holleman in Abundance.
It’s 1868. Two women with dreams as big as the wide Wyoming skies head west to find fortune, adventure and love. But the frontier is unforgiving, and dreams and friendships will both be put to the test.

In 1976, Beth Henley moved to Los Angeles. The young writer and actress was looking for a big break in the film industry—and was disappointed to find that, for so many, the West remains an inhospitable place for young people with big dreams.

Playwright Beth Henley
Henley proved to be one of the lucky (and talented) exceptions. Dismayed by the lack of compelling roles for women, she began to write, and her first full-length play struck critical and commercial gold. Crimes of the Heart garnered her the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new American play and an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay. Audiences quickly fell in love with her richly painted characters, quirky voice and dark, distinctive humor.

But Henley never forgot the years when her goals seemed maddeningly elusive, and circled back to the theme in 1989’s Abundance. “I was dealing with what happens with people's dreams,” she says. “People come out to California so full of hope to be an actress or to be in movies and slowly they find themselves working at Chicken Bob's or they want to be great novelists and they're trying to write bad TV scripts. How do your dreams get chipped away?” Inspired by the bleak images of 19th-century settlers in a book called Wisconsin Death Trip, she began thinking about the mythology of the American West and what happens when the reality proves to be more complicated than the myth. She found her subject in two young women who, like Henley and so many others, traveled west with high hopes.

In Abundance, Macon Hill and Bess Johnson come to the Wyoming Territory in 1868 as mail-order brides. Both have received “partial fare” from their husbands-to-be. The long journey, during which Bess had practiced saying “I do,” has put her near the end of her tether. Macon, however, is invigorated by the adventures that surely await, and by the opportunity to become whoever she wants to be.

Macon’s husband turns out to be William Curtis, a stolid and decent farmer who has lost an eye in a mining accident. Bess’s new spouse is Jack Flan, as wild a man as Wyoming has to offer. The two couples marry and begin their lives as settlers. They soon learn that the seemingly endless promise of the Western Territories comes with a price.

Abundance follows the Flans and Curtises from 1868 to 1893. What occurs during the 25-year span involves the dreams of all four confronting the reality of what they can create together and separately. Not surprisingly, the characters don’t always get what they want. With perhaps one exception they do face despair in their lives but ultimately find hope in themselves. And interestingly, that hope sometimes has its foundation in answers taught and things given to us by those who may have also had a hand in our despair.

Twenty-six years after Abundance premiered at South Coast Repertory, its lyricism and epic scope continue to resonate with audiences. New York Times critic Laura Collins-Hughs described a recent off-Broadway revival as “the sort of production that makes you realize how much you’ve missed a playwright’s voice.” Like Crimes of the Heart, Abundance is steeped in Henley’s signature sense of humor, which mines humanity’s highs and lows for moments of comic absurdity.

We are proud to welcome Beth Henley’s Abundance back home to SCR as part of our 2015-16 season. “I’ve always loved Beth’s work,” says Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson, who helms the current production. “She has some of the most beautiful imagery in her plays, and they’re always tremendously interesting in where they go. John Millington Synge once said about a play that it should be full flavored like a berry or a nut, and all Beth’s plays are totally full flavored.”

Benson is joined by two members of the original 1989 world premiere production team. In addition to their considerable artistic talents, composer Michael Roth and dramaturg Jerry Patch have provided the current cast and production team with insights into the play’s history and development—plus a few choice stories from the "good old days."

Belita Moreno and O-lan Jones in the 1989 production of Abundance.
Michael Roth: Composer,
1989 and 2015

Michael Roth
Michael Roth has never been to Wyoming. “I’m the worst person to be composing this show,” he jokes—although the record suggests otherwise. Roth composed the original music for Abundance in 1989, and his vibrant score was so successful at conveying the poetry and scope of Henley’s writing that Martin Benson asked him to return for this year’s production.

When Roth was asked to work on the world premiere of Abundance, he wasn’t sure it was a story he would relate to. Then he read the script and found it stunning. “It has the resonance of a lifetime,” he says. “The play takes you through time in a really interesting way that is unique to Beth Henley’s writing—there’s this kind of mythic quality to it.” That epic journey is reflected in his score, which echoes the desolate beauty of the Western frontier before transitioning into early ragtime at the end of the play.

Roth, whose style a colleague once described as “solo fiddle Philip Glass,” is revisiting and expanding his earlier compositions for this year’s production. He observed the actors during the first several days of rehearsal to get a sense of their dynamic together, and of the rhythm of Martin Benson’s direction.

Listen to more of Roth’s work.

Belita Moreno, Bruce Wright, Jimmy Ray Weeks and O-lan Jones in the 1989 production of Abundance.
Jerry Patch: Dramaturg,
1989 and 2015

Jerry Patch
Early in Act Two of Abundance, one character mentions a "Captain Patch at Fort Sully." That captain is named after none other than SCR’s Jerry Patch, who served as the dramaturg on the world premiere production of the play in 1989. He and playwright Beth Henley worked so well together that she decided to pay tribute to him in the script. Talk about naming rights!

Patch returns as dramaturg for the 2015 production, bringing with him a wealth of information about the play’s history, insights into its dramatic structure, and anecdotes from back in the day. He remembers  an early reading of Abundance at Henley’s L.A. house, in which the roles of the principal couples were played by Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Holly Hunter and John Lithgow. At SCR, the cast joked that they were simply keeping the costumes warm for those four to take to Broadway. "But the cast was wrong," says Patch. "They were terrific, giving us a hit, and the New York cast was completely different from that first reading and SCR's premiere." 

Patch, who now splits his time between SCR and the Manhattan Theatre Club, where he serves as the Artistic Development Consultant, is excited to revisit Beth Henley’s play at the theatre where it began. “Its characters are beautifully orchestrated, and she's managed to cover a time period lasting decades in an incredibly economic way,” he says. “I think Abundance is one of Beth’s very best plays.”

Learn more and buy tickets.

1 comment:

  1. Humorous and thoughtful play. Portrays the joys and disappointments of life full of high expectations. Outstanding acting, directing, and music!