|Tim Gouran and Nabilah Ahmen in My Antonia (John Ulman)|
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through December 30, 2018
Willa Cather’s best-known novel is My Ántonia. She wrote movingly about the vast heartland of the United States plains and the joys and hardships of living in the sparsely populated and wild-weathered countryside. She wrote in a kind of spare, nature-loving way about the people who lived there and their ways of thinking and thriving.
Annie Lareau loved the book and adapted it for first production with Book-It Repertory Theatre back in 2008. It won a lot of critical praise and recognition at that time and Book-It decided to bring it back this year, with Lareau directing.
Lareau writes in the program that she long thought of the story about making a “home” for oneself and, this year, realized the connection to the current issues around immigration and integration that are so politically potent. This is what comes across most strongly in the production, this year. It is so palpably about the difficulties of leaving one’s homeland to make a new life in a new and strange land.
The very large ensemble cast for this production is a collection of wonderful actors who bring every moment with passion. I enjoyed all the performances, particularly the engaging eagerness of Nabilah Ahmed as Ántonia and the youthful bashfulness of Tim Gouran as narrator and main guy Jim.
Also the scenic design by Julia Welch brought the grasslands of our heartland to beautiful effect, with evocative sound design by Erin Bednarz, simple and functional costuming by Kelly McDonald, and the-outside-brought-inside lighting design by Ahren Buhmann. Lareau directed with simplicity and clarity.
The difficulty with the production mostly lies in the script which extends for far too long the hardship of the first winter the family Shimerda spends in an almost unbearable living situation. It’s not that we shouldn’t dwell on the hardships, but a lot of the first act drags and tires as if to over-make that point. Since this is the second opportunity to do this script for Book-It, the opportunity was there to review the script and sharpen the focus.
So, while the cast works hard to overcome it, the bucolic nature of the first act tends to try to put the audience to sleep. It’s a credit to the cast if it doesn’t.
The second act moves along much more adroitly, though much of that act is less about the integration of immigrants into a harsh environment and more about the young folk growing up and becoming the adults establishing their businesses and escaping the country living. It’s more about flirtations with different loves, even as we are now invested in Jim and Ántonia becoming a couple – and our disappointment with that not happening.
But as sleepy as the first act feels, one can honor the people it portrays and the struggle to make one’s way in this world, where even kind people don’t help enough, and you’re generally left to fend for yourself the best you can. The play feels somewhat similar to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, in that it feels like a memory play, where memory makes fond what may have really been almost unbearable sorrow.
For more information, go to www.book-it.org or call 206-216-0833.