“Abundance” a fine feminist take on mail order brides in the 1800s West

By Lucy Komisar

Money is power is the message of Beth Henley‘s engrossing 1990 feminist play about two mail order brides and the men they marry in the late 19th-century Wyoming Territory. It gets a realistic staging by director Jenn Thompson.

Kelly McAndrew as Macon and Tracy Middendorf as Bess, photo Marielle Solan.

The story starts in the 1860s and for 25 years follows the reversal of fortunes of the two couples.

Henley based the story and characters on true events.

Bess Johnson (Tracy Middendorf), timid and shy, is waiting on a bench for the man whose letters and travel money brought her to the West. Macon Hill (Kelly McAndrew), who has arrived at the same spot, is outspoken and joyous about the adventure.

Both answered newspaper ads that brought them to this spot. But they are very different. Bess is frightened, uncertain about the future. But Macon declares, “I can be whatever I want to be. I‘m going to make it up.” And she is tough, “I‘d clip the wings off an angel if it could help me fly!”  Both women are excellent in their portrayals.

Todd Lawson as Jack and Tracy Middendorf as Bess, photo Marielle Solan.

But for bad luck, they get the wrong guys. Bess‘s man, who wrote to her about music and the light of the sky, has died, and his brother showed up instead. Jack Flan (well-played by Todd Lawson) is illiterate, crude, violent, morose, unfeeling.

Macon‘s Will Curtis (a sympathetic Ted Koch) is shy and sensitive, a recent widower. Will  lost an eye in a mining accident. He is caring if a bit hesitant in expression. She finds him repulsive.

Eventually Bess wants to leave, to go further west. But Macon is now involved in building up the farm. She wants the abundance, for which the play is named, the hope of the migrants West.

Kelly McAndrew as Macon and Ted Koch as Will, photo Marielle Solan.

Jack foolishly buys a salted gold mine, and that couple‘s fortunes collapse. They move in with Will and Macon. But Jack is unappreciative, nasty, heartless.

Now it‘s 4 years on, and Macon is telling her husband what to do. She doesn‘t want to sleep with him. She is covertly interested in Jack. (Smart women, foolish choices.)

But eventually there will be a role reversal. Bess, distraught, leaves the cabin to go to the river. She doesn‘t return. Five years later – and this is based on a true story – the U.S. army rescues her from an Indian tribe, which doesn‘t appear to have treated her too badly. She married the chief and later displays affection for him.

Tracy Middendorf as Bess, photo Marielle Solan.

Life isn‘t easy Wheat prices have dropped, then there is a drought, destroying the finances of Will and Macon. Bess seems to have forgotten speech, or more likely is shell-shocked. (That part is a big disconcerting.) Her chin and arms are tattooed.

Then, a professor arrives and proposes they write a book about her experiences. From that moment, fortunes shift. (She gets back her speech just fine.)

The play is strong and taut, with not an unnecessary scene. Middendorf and McAndrew do an excellent job of reversing the personalities of their characters. Lawson is very good as the kind of guy you wouldn‘t want to meet in an alley. TACT (The Actor‘s Company) is known for fine ensemble productions, and this is a good example.

Abundance.” Written by Beth Henley; directed by Jenn Thompson. TACT at The Beckett Theater at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York City.  212-560-2184 or  212-947-8844.  Opened March 1, 2015; closes March 28, 2015. 3/4/15.

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