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World Premiere staging of Willa Cather's My Antonia goes up at the Illusion Theater

The Illusion Theater brings Willa Cather's most famous prairie life classic to life on stage.
The Illusion Theater brings Willa Cather's most famous prairie life classic to life on stage.
Photo courtesy of the Illusion Theater

“A mold to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself- life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.” Nothing describes Willa Cather’s intimate artistic style like her own words. In the world premiere of an adapted staging of Cather’s classic semi-autobiographical novel My Antonia at the Illusion Theater, director Michael Robins captures the intangible purity of youthful interaction between protagonist, Jim Burden, and his friend/love/muse, Antonia.

The roaring whistle of a train followed by a raspy conductor’s call, “Next stop, Black Hawk!” commences Allison Moore’s adapted script as an older Jim Burden (Brian Goranson) is jolted out of his heavy state of nostalgia. Jim then begins to narrate romanticized memories of his past as they are played out on stage in these final moments before his long-anticipated return to the town where he grew up.

Jim first moved to the plains outside of Black Hawk to live with his grandparents in the wake of his parents’ death. Around the same time, Antonia Shimerda (Tony, played by Katie Guentzel) and her family reach the final destination of their pilgrimage from Bohemia on the same prairie. Intrigued and entertained by their differences, Jim and Tony become instant friends. Per Tony’s father’s dying wish Jim teaches Tony to speak English. Later, Jim begs Tony to come to school with him and keep learning, but without a working father in the family, Tony forgoes school to earn money for her family. As Jim grows older, his grandparents send him to town in Black Hawk to get a better education. Taking pity on the Shimerda family’s situation, Jim’s grandparents help Tony find work in Black Hawk, allowing Jim and Tony to stay close.

After some time though, Jim catches flak from peers and family for hanging around the town dances with Tony, who has, by questionable fault of her own, developed a lascivious reputation. Jim agrees to obey his grandparents’ wishes to engage in more conventional pastimes, but he never compromises his bond to Tony. Though circumstances continue to draw the two apart in unexpected ways, Jim finds out that “the past, is never really gone,” and that Tony and the prairies of Nebraska will always be a part of who he is.

Unlike Laura Ingles Wilder, who may be a stronger household name for prairie tales, Willa Cather’s perspective puts the humanity of the pioneers in the forefront, letting the hard realities of prairie life live somewhere in the background, making her stories more heart-wrenching and more emotionally relatable to readers and viewers. Cather’s tale also reveals truths about religious, socioeconomic, and gender disparities during the time of Western settlement through young Jim Burden’s untainted lens.

Through most of older Jim’s accounts of his childhood and college years, the memories highlight Jim’s total disregard for society’s opinion of his relationship with Antonia. But his fate eventually proves somewhat ironic, because while Jim verbally confronts society’s criticism of his and Tony’s relationship, in the end he falls in line with their expectations of an Ivy League lifestyle.

This maiden production attains profundity through clear, modest choices such as its humble set made of only two wooden bench-like platforms moved around the space in front of a projector screen. The actors (with the exception of Tony) were utilized in multiple roles using layered casting choices to enrich the connotation of existing relationships. For example, the double casting of older Jim as Tony’s father emphasizes both the role of protector and deserter that these men represent in Tony’s life. Katie Guentzel shines in her starring role as she brings this spastic, vivacious bohemian lady of literature to life. In truth, the production style turned out somewhat similar to that of the Guthrie’s recent musical rendition of Little House on the Prairie, but far more emotionally satiable and mature.

The show could bring feelings of hope, inevitable disappointment, or even triumph, depending on what stage of life you’re in. Many people rush to find what will be their most uncompromising principle and like these pioneers say “why would I leave now?”, but Cather presents the outcomes of both running and enduring in hard times, both of which can leave a similar aftertaste of regret for what was not once chosen. 

My Antonia plays at the Illusion Theater through March 20th. My Antonia is adapted from the original Willa Cather novel by Allison Moore (music by Roberta Carlson) and is directed by Michael Robins, with lighting by Michael Wangen, set design by Dean Holzman, and costume design by Katerine B Khol. My Antonia's Producing Director is Bonnie Morris. Tickets range from $20-30 and can be purchased at the box office or at the Illusion Theater website. 


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