The Originals explore the soul of America

Go West, young woman
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 2, 2012

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INTO THE WEST Mail-order brides in the Wyoming Territory in the 1860s.

"I savor the boundlessness of it all," exalts life-loving Macon (Sally Wood) to timid Bess (Jennifer Porter), under the vertiginously open sky of 1860s Wyoming Territory. The young women are recent arrivals here from back East: both are mail-order brides waiting to meet their husbands and to be whisked off to rugged frontier domesticity. The possibilities seem limitless. This storied land, those spacious skies, and the curious brutalities they can spawn are the heart of Beth Henley's Abundance, directed by Dana Packard for the Originals, at the Saco River Grange Hall in Bar Mills. In this strange, provocative play about the soul of America, Henley explores the literal and psychic expanse of the West, and considers its toll.

The funny, supremely competent Macon draws a one-eyed widower and rancher named William (Michael Howard), unprepossessing but kind, while the self-effacing Bess's husband-to-be has died during her journey, leaving her with his handsome but illiterate, lazy, and abusive brute of a brother, Jack (Dana Packard). The men happen to own neighboring ranches (their home on the range is beautifully suggested in Peter Bloom and Heidi Hendrick's angled plank walls and hitching posts, backed by a huge blue sky over parched greens), so the couples spend time together as Macon and William's prospects rise, as Bess and Jack's are squandered, and as odd reversals of fortune and power play out on the frontier's tremendous plains.

Abundance is not just set in a sprawling landscape; it's also itself a sprawling piece of work, in terms of both time and ethos. From curtain to curtain, the show spans close to 25 years, with the eleven and eight scenes of the two acts each jumping ahead hours, months, or years. The show also seems to straddle a wide range of genre and tone — sometimes the show seems a lyrical comedy, sometimes a dark drama, sometimes a deadpan absurdist romp. While Henley is perhaps best-known for her 1978 modern Southern Gothic comedy Crimes of the Heart, her approach in Abundance (a 1990 script) is more experimental, more fragmented, and ultimately more thematically bemusing.

It's all the more impressive, then, that over this wide and jumpy time line, the arc of Mason's all-American independence — which turns her from spunky upstart to desperate, embittered protector of her ranch — is cohesive, and utterly convincing, in the hands of the superb Wood. The evolution of Bess, which takes much more unexpected turns over those 25 years — she even eventually employs her own manager (the very measured Christopher Reilling) — is more problematic. Bess is a highly interior character to begin with, and in Porter's restrained and delicate portrayal, she is often trembling with almost wholly repressed affect. This allows her Bess to contrast beautifully with Macon's no-nonsense competence and candor, though it also keeps her, in many ways, a cipher.

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