While set in Nebraska, Willa Cather’s beloved novel “My Ántonia” is a paean to all the great prairies of America’s turn-of-the-19th-century frontier, so it’s not surprising that Illusion Theater thought a stage adaptation would resonate with Minnesota audiences. Indeed, their current production at the intimate Lab Theater in the Lowry Building in downtown St. Paul demonstrates once more the powerful pull of this story of a young girl and the sweeping landscape she comes to represent.
First staged by Illusion in 2010, Allison Moore’s adaptation captures the movement and emotion of Cather’s book, while encapsulating the plot in a headlong 90 minutes (without intermission).
It opens with narrator Jim Burden returning to his childhood home after a 20-year absence. As the miles pass beneath the wheels of his train, he recollects his first arrival in Nebraska and, specifically, his first meeting with the young Ántonia, an immigrant from Bohemia who remains a presence in his imagination for the rest of his life.
Moore’s spare, insightful script is complemented by Dean Holzman’s minimal set, in which three platforms conjure a variety of places, from a train station to a pioneer dugout, and Michael Wangen’s subtle lighting design. Roberta Carlson’s music fills this simple setting with all the sparkle and lyricism of Cather’s vision of frontier life, from the chug of a train to infectious strains of dance music and the scratchy chirp of a grasshopper.
Under Michael Robins’ economical direction, these simple artistic elements become an apt backdrop for the bright colors of Andrea San Miguel’s lively evocation of the title character. Brimming with energy, nearly tripping over her words in her haste to express herself, San Miguel’s Ántonia is a force of nature with a boundless enthusiasm for life. She demonstrates a quicksilver emotional range, moving almost instantaneously from tears to laughter in a way that is totally convincing. It’s a lovely performance that ably captures the essence of this character.
Dan Hopman, as the adult Jim, provides a keenly honed sense of nostalgic regret, more sweet than bitter, as he narrates the story. It’s a philosophic detachment that contrasts nicely with the passion and adolescent angst of Zach Keenan’s young Jim. Anna Hickey is another standout, embodying an impressive range in dual roles as Ántonia’s belligerent, hard-bitten mother, as well as her friend, the flirtatious Lena Lingard. Ryan Patrick, Delta Giordano and Rebecca Leiner round out a competent cast.
Illusion’s “My Ántonia” does a nice job overall of translating a powerful, evocative novel to the stage in a production that both respects and salutes its source.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.