My Antonia For Entertainment Today,
7/1/08 by Travis Michael Holder
I’m not quite sure if I would have enjoyed Scott Schwartz’ faithful stage adaptation of Willa Cather’s romantic 1918 novel My Antonia at Pacific Resident Theatre, if the production had opened in March or October. Get me while I’m hot-or when the weather’s hot-is the point.
Still, cyclic prejudices aside and even if I’m being more dramatic here than anything else, I honestly think the languidly lyrical My Antonia would have touched me whatever the season. Schwartz, previously noted for his directorial skills (Golda’s Balcony on Broadway) and his lineage as the son of Stephen (composer of Godspell, Pippin and Wicked, among others with more than one word in their titles), has created a gossamer experience for his audience, so close to Cather in feeling you can almost smell the slightly musty pages of the novel as the production unfolds in PRT’s wonderfully flexible playing space.
My Antonia takes place on the starkly pastoral plains of Nebraska in the 1880s, lovingly and vividly recalling the place where Cather had spent her childhood. The title character, the Bohemian immigrant Antonia Shimerda (Shiva Rose), was based on a hired girl who had worked for the Cathers’ neighbors and, as evocatively as she creates this character, it’s not hard to imagine Annie Sadilek Pavelka might have been the quietly lesbian author’s first big crush, one as unrequited for the writer as it sadly proves to be for her male protagonist.
As in the great classic novel, this fine stage adaptation is filled with the same fervor, not only passion for the two main characters whose star-crossed lifelong love for one another is sure to break hearts, but also beautifully evoking Cather’s obsession to recount for all time the experience of growing up in this austere environment during an era when three dollars a week was a decent wage and the American dream in our nation’s heartland was being sought after by the often shunned Eastern European immigrants who made up 40% of the general population.
Schwartz has ingeniously chosen to explore Cather’s story with the leading male character, the orphaned James Burden, recalling the events of his generally cheerless Nebraska childhood in flashbacks as a middleaged New York lawyer reluctantly traveling by train through the Great Plains on his way to meetings in San Francisco. One of the greatest resources for this production is the inclusion of the two actors who so memorably share this lovestruck character, with a solid, movingly poignant contribution by Kevin Kilner as the older James juxtaposed with the sweetly adorable Michael Redfield charmingly playing him as a wide-eyed young man whose idealism is soon to be dashed into the jagged rocks of adulthood.
Occasionally, the two James are onstage at the same time, a boldly iffy dramatic invention which often fails but works beautifully here, made even more accessible to the collective imaginations of the audience as the other performers forming this excellent ensemble of players deliver short