THEATER | “My Ántonia” and the problem of turning books into plays

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Illusion Theater brought back its award-winning adaptation of Willa Cather’s beloved novel My Ántonia for a limited engagement this past weekend at the Cowles Center as well as a tour around Minnesota to colleges, high schools, and different communities.

The show is perfect as a touring production. The book, required reading in many high schools, is as resonant today as when it was first written. Themes of feminism, immigration, and Cather’s beautiful descriptions of the beautiful country that the characters grow up in make it a story that is very accessible for people of all ages.

Of course, as playwright Allison Moore says in her program notes, there are challenges to turning a full length book into a novel, when certain things inevitably have to get cut for sake of time. For the most part, Moore handles the task aptly, drawing out the characters well and giving a sense of place. Lovers of the book will miss certain things that are either cut short, however. The tragic story of Mr. Shimerda doesn’t quite get its due, for example, because we don’t have enough time getting to know the character. And you just can’t replace Cather’s beautiful descriptions of the land and the people, although Moore does the best she can to at least bring some of that imagery into the 90-minute production.

I would have liked to have seen more of a set—although I realize that’s probably impossible with this kind of show geared toward touring. The production does include projected images, but they were rather grainy and small, so you just don’t quite get the sense of beauty of the place as you do reading Cather’s descriptions of them. The music, composed by Roberta Carlson, is most effective in creating a mood for the show.

One thing that just didn’t work for me was the narrator, played by Joel Liestman. Liestman did a perfectly fine job in the role, but there’s just something about the convention that didn’t work. Cather, though she was known to have worn men’s clothing and lived with the same woman for nearly forty years, never said she was a lesbian, and that aspect of her sexuality has been debated among literary critics. However, regardless of whether you can read Jim’s longing for Ántonia as autobiographical on the part of the author, there are certainly some strikingly feminist statements in the book (For example, the character of Lena choosing to become financially self sufficient and never marrying, and on top of that choosing to have sexual relationships outside of the marriage institution). The use of a male actor playing Jim as narrator loses something, because although in the book Jim is the narrator, it’s actually both Jim and Cather speaking together.

The cast for the production is strong, particularly a lovely turn by Jennifer Maren as Lena Lingaard, the sexy Scandinavian who is both sweet and ambitious in all aspects of her life. Emily Gunyou Halaas’s Ántonia is full of energy and playfulness, but she is most effective when she portrays the character’s melancholy side. The one thing that’s missing from the casting is a sense that Ántonia is older than Jim—which is an important part of the book, especially in the first part of the novel. But, apart from casting two children actors I’m not sure how to get around this problem.

If you miss the show this weekend, the show is still on tour to various spots in Minnesota, including St. Catherine’s on February 21. You can check Illusion’s website for details.


Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor collaborative.