My Ántonia tells the story of a young immigrant girl in late 19th century Nebraska, through the eyes of her childhood friend Jim. The adult Jim narrates the story as he's returning home to visit, and his memories of his time on the frontier and the girl that he loves come to life on stage. We watch Jim and Ántonia grow from children playing on the prairie to young adults making their way in the world. Even though Jim and Ántonia's life paths diverge (he goes to Harvard and becomes a big city lawyer, she stays home and raises a family and a farm), they share a connection that cannot be broken by time or distance. Jim's nostalgia for the Nebraska prairie is inextricably intertwined with his memories of the girl that he knew and the boy that he was.*
A big part of the success and emotional impact of this piece is the music by Roberta Carlson. The three-piece off-stage orchestra provides a constant soundtrack to the story, and so specifically brings you to that time and place, tinged with memory. The language of the play (which I assume was largely taken from the book) paints such a picture I that almost wanted to close my eyes to better see it, but then I would have missed the simple but effective images of waving grass or a plow against the sunset projected onto the backdrop. The writing, acting, direction by Michael Robins, music, and images combine to create a feeling of nostalgia for a past I never knew, but that as a descendant of pioneer immigrants is in my bones somehow.*
|the cast of My Ántonia (photo courtesy of Illusion Theater)|
Although set in the past, Willa Cather's story is still relevant today. It tells of hard-working immigrants who are the foundation of this country, and it's a women's story, despite the fact that the main character and narrator is a man. Jim Burton is based on Willa herself; she only made the character a man because of the conventions and limitations of the time she was writing in (more on that in the program as well). Both immigrant stories and women's stories are stories we're eager to tell and listen to in 2019.
I hope that Illusion Theater continues to bring back My Ántonia every few years, and I will continue to go see it. Beginning with the evocative language of the novel, and adding the beautifully sparse elements of production, it creates a picture so beautiful that it continues to bring tears to my eyes, no matter how many times I see it. But who knows if or when it will be back, so don't miss your chance to see this production (click here for more info and tickets, or here for discount tickets on Goldstar.)
*Some text borrowed from what I wrote about the 2014 production.