Willa Cather’s epic 1918 novel has been transformed into an absolutely exquisite memory play by writer/director Scott Schwartz. For those like myself who missed the production’s debut at the Ventura’s Rubicon this past May, Antonia is back, in the more intimate setting of Venice’s Pacific Resident Theatre, and certain to enchant audiences of all ages for weeks to come.

The surrounding blue skies of Beowolf Boritt’s simple but beautiful set form the perfect backdrop for the epic yet intensely personal story of a teenage American orphan and a slightly older Eastern European immigrant whose lives intersect on the late nineteenth century Nebraska plains. 

In Schwartz’s distillation of Cather’s novel, the middle-aged James Burden (Kevin Kilner) looks back more than 25 years to his arrival in the fictional town of Black Hawk.  Burden’s memories are recounted not just by Kilner but by other cast members, who speak James’s words (in unison and individually) and portray the many characters who impacted the life of teenage “Jim.”

For all but the play’s first and final scenes, Kilner remains an onstage observer, with Michael Redfield assuming the role of young Jim. That Kilner and Redfield look nothing at all alike would be problematic in a film. Fortunately here we are the world of theater, where imagination reigns supreme and allows us to be transported back and forth again and again through time and space.

Young Jim has come to Black Hawk to live with his salt-of-the-earth grandparents (Karen Landry and understudy Frank Collison).  “Well, welcome … I suppose,” Grandma tells Jim, who soon after meets the Shimerda family, freshly arrived from Bohemia. They are Mr. and Mrs. Shimerda (Bob McCracken and Nancy Sauder), handsome Ambrosch (David Rogge), mentally retarded Marek (Orestes Arcuni), and the beautiful Antonia (Shiva Rose).  When it turns out that the Shimerdas are being exploited by their evil countryman Krajiek (Miguel Perez), Grandma comments dryly, “These foreigners. You can’t even trust them with their own kind.” (Though My Antonia takes place more than a century ago, the contemporary immigrant experience still resonates in the Shimerdas’ story.)

Fortunately, Grandma and Grandpa help the Shimerdas to escape from Krajiek’s tyranny, and Jim begins to teach Antonia English.  “I vant be American,” she tells him earnestly. “Get rich. Be like noble. Be best American girl.”  Naturally, Jim cannot help but fall for the beautiful Antonia.

Director Schwartz enlisted his dad Stephen (has anyone heard of a show called Wicked?) to write incidental music for this production, a decision which ups the play’s emotional resonance many a notch. Like the musical soundtrack of a classic film, Schwartz’s gorgeous music (arranged and performed live by Lloyd Cooper on piano and keyboard with Richard Adkins on violin) becomes an integral part of the storytelling, and one can’t help but wish that more stage productions would underscore emotional scenes with music.  The results can be moving indeed. 

My Antonia would make (in fact has made) a fine film (Jason Robards, Eva Marie Saint, Neil Patrick Harris, and Elina Löwensohn starred in a 1995 TV movie), but as a memory play (a la Glass Menagerie), the stage proves the ideal medium for Cather’s story.  As we move effortlessly from the present to the past and back again, actors portray several characters each with the simple addition of a wig or bonnet or sideburns, as well as speaking adult James’s words.  

Scott Schwartz’s direction is imaginative indeed, a scene in which Jim and Antonia are threatened by a rattlesnake proving a particularly fine example of the magic of live theater. A knotted rope held at the end of a stick becomes a truly frightening snake as cast members shake rattles and reeds surrounding Jim and Antonia with the sounds of danger. In another scene, our imagination creates a pack of attacking wolves in one of the novel’s most frightening flashbacks, the tale of the men who fed a bride to the wolves in order to escape themselves. Schwartz also deserves credit for helping to shape the marvelous work done by the show’s dozen or so actors.

The cast is so uniformly superb that it seems unfair to single anyone out, though the stellar Rose is an absolutely incandescent Antonia and young Redfield makes for an earnest and pure-of-heart Jim.  As the Shimerdas, McCracken, Sauder, and Rogge provide an affecting embodiment of the immigrant family, and Arcuni disappears astonishingly into Marek’s deformed body. (When we see the nearly miraculous results of Antonia’s teaching her brother English words, the moment is emotional indeed.) Julia Motyka is wonderful as the “other woman” in Jim’s life, the vivacious/flirtatious Norwegian Lena Lingard.  Sauder and Collison make for a humorously stereotypical pair of Italians, nicely balanced by Landry and Collison’s understated work as Jim’s grandparents. Perez and Kate Fuglei provide comic relief as the mismatched Cutters. Tom Beyer is appropriately despicable as liar/thief Larry Donovan, who leaves Antonia pregnant, and William Lithgow does his usual fine work as a folksy train conductor. Finally, Kilner’s fine performance as the middle-aged James provides an admirable anchor to the production.

Boritt’s set and Steven Young’s masterful lighting join forces time and again to create one breathtaking tableau after another, one of the most powerful being the black silhouettes of mourners against a dark blue sky at Jim’s grandfather’s funeral. Stas Kmiec has staged several wonderful dance sequences, and Melissa Bruning’s costumes are period perfect. Special credit must be given to sound designer David Beaudry’s imaginative foley design, executed by the onstage cast.    (What was it they were holding in their hands to make those chirping sounds?)

With three acts and two intermissions, My Antonia clocks in at nearly three hours, yet not once did my interest flag. In every respect, this is live theater at its finest, and when an audience member shouted out “Wonderful!” as the cast took their bows, he took the words right out of my mouth.

Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice.

–Steven Stanley
July 6, 2008

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