My Antonia at Illusion Theater

John Catron as Jim Burden & Katie Guentzel as Antonia - Photo by Lauren B. Photography

I will admit that I wondered why Illusion Theater (528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis)  might pick this standard in American literature classes for a new adaptation. I know the book well, and even after years away from the classroom, I could recollect many images from its pages. Such is the power of Cather’s writing.

Though I might not have chosen exactly the same details to script, I was pleased that Allison Moore, with the sensitive guidance of director Michael Robins, captured the simple beauty of this timeless, bittersweet story.

A young Bohemian girl, Antonia Shimerda arrives on the wild, Nebraska prairie with her coarse peasant mother (Angie Haigh), sensitive-musician father (Brian Goranson) and her brother, Ambrosch (Tony Brown), and meets Jim Burden (John Catron), a young boy who has come there to live with his grandparents. Their friendship grows as they do, and although Jim is deeply in love by the time he is off to college, Antonia – now a hired girl – knows she will never be a proper match for Jim. The tension created powers the show, complicated only slightly by his romantic liaisons with another childhood pal, Lena Lingard.
The choice to strip down the number of characters and actors (all but Antonia play double roles) and focus on this triangle, causes a curious shift. The play, in fact, could just as well be called, My Jim. From beginning to end we are so invested in him – played with such tenderness by Catron as young Jim and Goranson as adult Jim – that Antonia’s future becomes almost a non-issue.

And interestingly, it is Cather’s use of a narrator that best served its adaptation as a play. Goranson was the guiding light on this stage, illuminating page after page with barely a rustle as each turned. His perfectly understated performances of Jim Burden as both a character in the action and the narrator, Mr. Shimerda, and Gaston Cleric were absolutely lovely to watch. Every transition was pure finesse.

Katie Guentzel as Antonia took hold of the opening scene with wide-eyed gusto, but playing a character drawn so exuberantly without taking it over the top is not easy. Guentzel certainly grasped what is most appealing about Antonia – sunny defiance in the face of tragedy and hardships, and there were moments she surely brought tears to more eyes than mine. But there is such a fine line – a tiny thread, even – between wearing a role like a comfortable sweater and drawing attention to the sweater itself.

The rest of the ensemble (Beth Gilleland, David Roberts and Molly Sue MacDonald) flowed from scene to scene, character to character with grace and skill, drawing a picture (a sketch, really, but it was just enough) of the austere social order they inhabited. By paring down the cast of characters to its core, Moore fashioned a story that was free to inhabit the airy space between the floor of the stage and the fly loft, without the distracting encumbrances of moving crowds of actors.

Or sets. A big, heavy, elaborate production would have overpowered this intimate story and ruined it. Set designer, Dean Holzman, chose instead to place a permanent level upstage and two mobile ramps downstage, which were imaginatively used to offer the actors backdrops, levels and seating – quick conversions from one time and place to another.

The lightness of this production allowed the relationship between Jim and Antonia to gently alight here and there, like two butterflies, as if a relationship so loving cannot possibly be attached to anything so heavy as a set or furniture. Even so, I could have used just a little more visual interest, and the ramps, functional though they were, might have been less contemporary and more rural.

Costumes by Kathy Kohl were beautifully conceptualized and executed and allowed the actors to slip between roles with ease.

The production is accompanied by original music composed by Roberta Carlson – a tastefully appropriate mix of acoustic piano, cello, violin and guitar. The cello, in particular (Diane Tremaine Kogle) was exquisite.

Although audiences on either coast might not warm up to it, it is a good fit for audiences here. You can feel comfortable taking your children and your grandparents. In fact, I recommend doing that. The conversation afterward could be a memorable one.

My Antonia runs through March 20.

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