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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

My Ántonia
Illusion Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of What Guys Really Want and Iphigenia and Other Daughters


Ryan Dean Maltz and Annie Schiferl
Photo Courtesy of Illusion Theater
Willa Cather's My Ántonia was published in 1918, and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, lifting Cather to a place in the pantheon of American authors. One hundred years (and change) later, Illusion Theater is remounting its adaptation by Allison Moore, first produced in 2010 when it was the recipient of an Ivey Award. This new production is beautifully staged under Michael Robins' assured direction, and superbly acted by a cast that radiates a love for their characters.

Jim Burden, a forty-year-old Boston lawyer, serves as the narrator of the piece. He brings us back to 1885 and the fictitious town of Black Oak, Nebraska. My Ántonia is the tender story of an enduring friendship between Ántonia Shimerda, a teenage immigrant whose family arrives in Black Oak straight from Bohemia with visions of the "better life" promised in America, and Jim, an orphan coming from Virginia to live with his American-born grandparents on their farm. Both Jim and the Shimerda family are travelling to Nebraska on the same train, which is where ten-year-old Jim and Ántonia meet.

The descriptions of life in this incipient community are both moving and illuminating. Cather's narrative, with incidents and text sensitively culled by adapter Moore, reveal divisions between those with standing in the community and the new arrivals, especially those who come with no English, different religious practices, and strange foods. Over the years, as Jim grows from a ten-year-old to a college-bound class valedictorian, we see the guarded, gradual easing of boundaries dividing neighbors, and witness the painstaking progress made by families like the Shimerdas who plow the hard-packed unfurrowed prairie and, against huge odds, establish a life for themselves. The depiction of life among adolescents growing up in Black Oak—the burdens of familial duties, stark differences in expectations placed on boys and girls, pleasurable release in town dances and picnics, and stern judgment of townspeople should those pleasures cross certain lines, including associations with the "wrong" types—gives us a rich understanding of the context in which Ántonia and Jim's deep friendship blooms.

As narrator, Jim's remembrance may be slanted by the fact that as he matured, he developed feelings beyond friendship for Ántonia. Through his eyes we see her robust nature, her appreciation for beauty in the world around her, her strident independent streak, and a thirst for learning held back by her duty to help her family survive their harsh life on the unplowed prairie, especially after tragedy falls upon them. It has been suggested that Jim is a stand-in character for Willa Cather, who had a very close friendship with a Bohemian immigrant girl a few years older than herself, called Annie Sadilek. The narrative in My Ántonia points to the gulf in social status—Jim, an educated youth from a "proper" family, bound for college and a career, and Ántonia, a wild-spirited girl from a poor immigrant family bound to their hardscrabble land—as an obvious barrier between them. Beyond that, Cather was a lesbian and known as a tomboy growing up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, wearing her hair short and dressing in boy's clothes. This knowledge offers an added subtext to both the depth and impossibility of the feelings between the narrator and Ántonia.

A lovely musical score, composed by Roberta Carlson and performed live on violin, guitar, cello and piano, is heard throughout the play. It serves primarily as underscoring, though it also breaks wide open for a joyful summer's night dance, adds grace to a funeral hymn, and provides ambient sounds of birds, insects, wind, and other elements of life on the open prairie. The music is an essential component of My Ántonia, adding a feeling of wistfulness to Jim Burden's narration.

Dan Hopman portrays the older Jim Burden and makes a powerful connection to that same wistfulness, both mourning and reveling in the place and the people he left behind, most of all his adored friend Ántonia. He is also deeply affecting as Ántonia's homesick father, Mr. Shimerda. Annie Schiferl is wonderful as Ántonia, fully revealing her exuberant passion for life, yet keeping her grip on the somber realities of being poor, being an immigrant, and being female. As young Jim Burden, Ryan Dean Maltz captures the naïve, good-hearted ten-year-old we meet at the start, and persuasively grows up before our eyes into a young man torn between a hometown love and a life destined to take him away from that.

Olivia Wilusz plays two very different characters. As Mrs. Shimerda, she brings to life the fierce life-force of an immigrant woman, determined to keep herself and her family whole. As Lena, a Swedish-born friend of both Ántonia and Jim, she exudes bubbly confidence in her ability to live a life of her choosing, as well as in her appeal to boys, and later to men. Corey Farrell and Shae Palic complete the altogether capable cast. Hopman, Schiferl and Wilusz deliver Czech accents as the Shimerda family with aplomb (fine assist by dialect coach Foster Johns and Czech language coach James Cada), though Wilusz' is a bit off-key with Lena's Swedish accent.

My Ántonia is staged with a minimum of scenery, designed by Dean Holzman, save a handsomely appointed railroad compartment off to one side, from which Jim Burden begins his narration as he heads back to Black Oak for the first time in twenty years. Aside from that, a pair of portable wooden structures, along with a few chairs and tables carried on and off, are arranged to form the farm buildings, homes, horse-drawn wagons, dance pavilions, and all other settings, the simplicity in sync with the stark land being settled and turned into small-town America. The original productions costumes, designed by Kathy Kohl and adapted for this remount by Barb Portinga, have the air of period authenticity, as if swiped from a diorama in the Black Oak Historical Society. Mike Wangen's atmospheric lighting and slides projected on the rear wall depicting the physical sweep of the Nebraska prairie and its starry nights complete the beautifully wrought physical production.

My Ántonia is a tender story of friendship and love, and a portrait of life among those who settled our heartland, told with both candor and affection. The story also shows us the particular struggles faced by immigrants who encounter prejudice as they endeavor to learn the ways of their new home while holding on to the traditions and values of the past. That is still the case for families newly settled in the United States, whether from Honduras, Myanmar, Syria or Somalia. One can only wonder, among those who oppose allowing refugees to enter the country in search of a safe and better life, how many of their great-great grandparents did just that, just like the Shimerdas and millions of others. Illusion Theater has done a wonderful service by bringing this moving story back to life.

My Ántonia, through March 24, 2019, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $45.00. For tickets call 612- 339-4944 or visit illusiontheater.org.

Playwright: Allison Moore, adapted from the novel by Willa Cather; Director: Michael Robins; Composer: Roberta Carlson; Set Design: Dean Holzman; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl, adapted by Barb Portinga; Lighting Designer: Mike Wangen; Dialects Coach: Foster Johns; Czech Language Coach: James Cada; Dramaturg: Bonnie Morris; Production Manager: William Harmon.

Cast: Roberta Carlson (piano), Joe Englund (cello), Corey Farrell (Otto/Ambrosch/Mr. Shimerda/Harry Paine/Mr. Ordinski), Emily Hacker (violin/guitar), Dan Hopman (Jim Burden), Ryan Dean Maltz (Young Jim Burden), Julia Morehouse (cello), Shae Palic (Grandmother/Mrs. Harling/Tiny), Annie Schiferl (Ántonia), Olivia Wilusz (Mrs. Shimerda/Lena).


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