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Prairie Memories: Jim (Michael Butler), Ántonia (Jessica Meyers) and their son, Leo (Julien Hornik), consider the past in 'My Ántonia.'

Where There's a Willa

TheatreWorks opens the book on Willa Cather's 'My Ántonia'

By Marianne Messina

LIKE THE Willa Cather novel, TheatreWorks' rather lengthy three-act production (pass the scalpel) of My Ántonia brings to life the immigrants and pioneers of the Nebraska prairie in the late 1800s. Adaptor/director Scott Schwartz presents a cup running over with homage to the book--re-creating the narrative voice, maintaining the primacy of "mood and atmosphere," telling the story and carrying the major themes.

The unrestrained scenic design of Joe Ragey and Daniela Nelke captures Cather's nullifying landscape; stagehands wheel in vast tracts of farm, town and stream against the sweeping backdrop of the sky. "I was aware of a presence all around us," the adult Jim Burden (Michael Butler) recalls, "the endless sky." Lighting designer Pamila Gray accomplishes feats of sky-wonder, creating the elaborate, pink-speared dusks and golden sunsets the characters refer to: "It never stops to amaze me," Jim says, "how the hay stacks turn rosy in this slanting sunlight."

The play unfolds in a series of recollections connected by the novel-style narration of a sometimes-confusing number of characters, not always speaking for themselves. But the main thread of memories comes from Jim Burden, during a cross-country train trip after he learns the train will be stopping in the Nebraska hometown he hasn't seen for 25 years. Playing the younger Burden, Ian Leonard gives "Jimmy" a suitable wide-eyed wholesomeness as the boy who came to stay with grandparents when his parents died.

As it looks at the choices people make in search of "a better life," the play focuses on the relationship between Jimmy and Ántonia Shimerda (Jessica Meyers), a Bohemian immigrant who takes instantly to the Nebraska land. Meyers' Ántonia is more bubbling brook than Cather's earth-tilling life force, yet she's nevertheless endearing. Schwartz's script doesn't lean so heavily on the relationship that it neglects the interactions of a diverse immigrant population--Russians, Czechs, Norwegians. And in a brilliant, painstaking stroke that conveys the frustration of language barriers, Schwartz has given the Shimerda family a lot of Czech dialogue. Nancy Sauder as Mrs. Shimerda, Joseph Ribeiro as Mr. Shimerda, Richard C. Bolster as Ambrosch and Meyers handle the lines--learned by brute memory--with an easy, native fluidity. (Nick Tagas has no Czech lines as the severely disabled Marek Shimerda, but he gives an amazing, poignant performance.)

Schwartz has also taken pains to salute Cather's symbolism; for example, the silhouette of a plow against the sun (again rendered nicely by Gray's light wizardry), or the huge rattlesnake (Jim recalls it as a "circus monstrosity") that Jimmy kills to become Ántonia's hero. The snake, a clever segmented creation, is sizable enough to require several stagehands to carry and operate it, while supernumeraries shake intimidating rattles about its tail.

The incidental music written by the playwright's father, Stephen Schwartz (whose credits range from Godspell to The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Prince of Egypt), is powerfully touching (and only slightly overemployed) in the cinematic way the live music comes up where you're supposed to get reflective (his Disney/DreamWorks influences showing?). Schwartz's ambitious designs seem to have brought out TheatreWorks' formidable synergies, and they somewhat overpower the lack of economy with an opulent texture.

My Ántonia, a TheatreWorks production, plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm (2pm only on April 25), extra shows Saturday (April 17 and 24) at 2pm, through April 25 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$50. (650.903.6000)

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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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