In the latter half of the 19th Century, larger-than-life characters such as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill (for whom Slue-Foot Sue just wasn’t good enough) filled the pages of dime novels and pulp-fiction magazines. They exemplified the courage needed to head west and “see the elephant.”
Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
$15 - $30
You could say Beth Henley’s Abundance is a dime novel in reverse. It reveals the back side of the elephant and asserts that the M’s in “go west, young Man” and “Man-ifest destiny” should be capitalized.
Life must’ve been pretty grim for Bess Johnson and Macon Hill. They are mail-order brides — it’s the late 1860s — who stagecoached to the untamed Wyoming Territory to meet their mates, sight unseen.
“I hope our husbands don’t turn out to be too damn ugly to stand,” says Bess. Bess couldn’t be more timid. A mite mentally challenged, she made her decision from three poetic letters from Michael Flan. Rip-roaring Macon’s ripe for adventure. She doesn’t just want to see the elephant, she wants to ride that pachyderm headlong into the unknown. She’d “rip the wings off an angel if it could help me to fly.”
Dreams of freedom lure them west. When they step off the train, reality sets in. Sensitive Michael choked on cornbread and died. Violent brother Jack will marry Bess. He has rules: Bess can’t sing, can’t cry, and must be subservient 24/7. Fine with her. At least she’s found a man.
“This is a beautiful home,” she says, shaking a grisly patchwork quilt. “Some women get squeamish over ticks, and bugs, and lice. Not me.”
Fireball Macon can’t stand her betrothed. Curtis has one eye and the compassion of an igneous rock. She begs Bess to run away with her right now.
Instead, years pass. Hardscrabble lives grow more intolerable. The women’s expectations — and ours — flip and flop and fizzle. At the end of Act One, when things simply couldn’t get worse, the bottom falls away.
I must confess a bias. I love Beth Henley. She has a spectacular knack of combining highs and lows — the flutes and the tubas — in a scene, even in a sentence. Abundance reaches far. Too far at times. The play covers 25 years, with some dramaturgical gaps. But it’s funny and shocking and warped and, on her terms, more real than all the penny dreadfuls put together.
And Backyard Renaissance does it justice. Ron Logan’s spare set, adobe-brown floor and walls, and soft blue sky; and Samantha Vesco’s period costumes, worn and torn, give the show an appropriately bleak look. Matt Lescault-Wood’s top-shelf sound design adds cattle lowing maybe 300 yards away, and appropriate music, including Claudia Cardinale’s haunting theme from Once Upon a Time in the West.
Francis Gerke (wolflike Jack Flan) and Brian Mackey (dull-as-brass William Curtis) play the equally horrific characters as written. At no point does the actor peek out and suggest, “I’m not like this.” Which is a tribute to both.
Jacque Wilke and Jessica John are splendid as Macon Hill and Bess Johnson, whose hopes and expectations, riddled with betrayals, crisscross. They come to Wyoming with no identity or role model, except for their dreams, which frontier life shreds systematically.
The ending makes one wonder: if Bess and Macon could have switched males at the train depot, things might have worked out. But then again, this is Beth Henley, for whom a miss is wide as a mile.
Playing through April 2