by Lenise Willis

Vanderveen Photographers

It’s 1860 and two young girls””mailorder brides””wait in the wild, western desert to meet their husbands. What they didn’t know they’d find is a friendship strong enough to withstand kidnapping, natural disasters, Indian escapades and even marriage. For its last show of its second Winston-Salem season, Triad Stage presents Abundance, a dusty tale of loss, adventure and dreams by playwright Beth Henley.

“I love the play’s journey through comedy, dark humor and real pain,” said Preston Lane, Triad Stage artistic director. “It’s a sprawling tale, but one that is so very, very human.”

Lane said he chose Abundance for two reasons: One, he considers Henley a great Southern writer, right up there with Tennessee Williams; and two, he loves plays that deal with myth and history.

“Abundance upends the traditional view of our western expansion, exposing some of its dark side, but also revealing the incredible role that women had in shaping the West,” Lane said. “Long before anywhere else in the world, women had the right to vote in the Wyoming territories. Somewhere between the mother on Little House on the Prairie and Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke, lived real women who were architects of the west. Bess and Macon (the mail-order brides in Abundance) are two such women and their tale is compelling.”

To transport the actors back in time, to a dry land filled with hope, scenic designer Robin Vest, who designed Triad Stage’s Crimes of the Heart (also by Beth Henley), worked magic with chalk, of all materials.

The floor of the stage is actually a chalkboard. “The idea behind the chalk is to make the delineation of space and sense of place all actor-driven,” Vest said. “So as Bess and Macon are settling their territories, we are watching them physically draw them out on the floor. I was attracted by the audience experiencing the work of it all, and by the chalk dust getting on the costumes the way farm dirt and dust would.”

Lane added that it was one of his own travels out west that fueled his vision.

“My strongest memory of my first year in Texas was a constant fear that the sky was falling,” he said. “The horizon reaches out forever and it seems as if you can reach up and grab the stars. This sense of carving up a wild terrain inspired us to embrace a theatrical way to draw a metaphor of time passing, fortunes shifting, land grabbing and loss of possession by using the most impermanent of writing instruments””chalk.”

The rest of the set is a large vista based on the deteriorated landscape prints by Photographer Sally Mann. “Her series of photographs have an overexposed look, which speaks to the relentless influence of the elements on the success of the new settlers,” Vest said.

She added that it was a surreal print of a barren-looking tree in the middle of a concrete cylinder that inspired a spiral staircase on stage, which both provokes thought and enables more movement for the actors.

“The tree had a sharp dangerous look,” she said. “I designed a version of the tree with a spiral staircase wrapping around it as a metaphor of man trying to tame and manipulate nature and how punishing that can be.”

With chalk dust tugging at the trim of their dresses and a barren vista behind them, the mail-order actresses shouldn’t have too much difficulty picturing themselves in the Wild West. And, as Vest mentions, any fans of Little House on the Prairie, might get a touch of nostalgia too. In fact, Vest herself pulled inspiration from the book series.

“As I read Abundance I was struck by these sort of quirky and wild characters,” She said. “In my minds eye I was physically placing them in that world of Pa and Ma (from Little House) trying to survive in several landscapes that have not met humans and are resisting their presence there.”

Overall the play should offer a few laughs and a lot of wild, exciting stories, and remind audiences of a truthfully not so simpler time. !


Triad Stage finishes its second season at Hanesbrands Theatre, 209 Spruce St., Winston-Salem, with Abundance May 6-17. Tickets are $10-$48. For tickets and more information call 272-0160 or visit