Pacific Resident Theatre
I’m not sure what happens to me during this particular season, but I am often stuck on escapist summer entertainment I would usually find too saccharine and sentimental to endure. This is not to say I would even remotely consider sitting through anything vaguely Rodgers and Hammerstein anytime of any year, especially when Tracy Letts and Martin McDonagh are out there ready to reinvent cutting edge theatre, only that my childhood memories of fireflies, fireworks and summer clambakes seem to seep into my fiercely protected urban existence along with the heat of July.
So excuse my elitism (although, if John McCain would be uncharacteristically correct, I’d consider myself in good company right now), but I’m not 100% sure if I would have enjoyed Scott Schwartz’ faithful stage adaptation of Willa Cather’s romantic 1918 novel My Antonia, now transferred with its original cast intact from the prolific Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura to 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 shared by shunned Eastern European immigrants who made up 40% of the general population in the region.
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 on the jagged rocks of adulthood.
Occasionally, the two James are onstage at the same time, a boldly iffy dramatic invention which has often failed in other theatrical attempts 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 passages directly lifted from Cather’s novel as scenes are changed on Beowolf Boritt’s properly austere yet versatile set.
What Schwartz has accomplished as writer and as a director is extraordinary, aided immensely by the evocative, gauzy incidental music score running throughout composed by that other Schwartz, the fortunate guy’s illustrious father, something that might have proved a distraction but here only accentuates the inimitable viewing experience. Lloyd Cooper contributes his subtlest artistry to this uniquely theatrical melodic supplement as musical director and violinist Richard Adkins is an asset to the proceedings as well—at least when he doesn’t yawn grandly during a scene played mere inches from his head.
Steven Young’s creamy lighting plot and Melissa Bruning’s fine period costuming also add to the understated old-world ambiance of the piece, but it is certainly the unusually large supporting cast, many playing multiple roles, who makes all of Cather’s and Schwartz’ solid artistry gel into such a memorable whole.
Each actor works diligently to breathe life into these stiff-backed country folk, a tribute to the talents of Rubicon casting director Lisa Jackson. Everyone joined onstage to tell this story has been perfectly chosen, with special nods to Karen Landry’s stern but bighearted grandmother, the always-superb Tom Beyer as both a goofily grinning immigrant farmer and the odious outsider who steals Antonia’s future, William Lithgow’s winking Santa Claus of a train conductor, Julia Motyka as an über-cheerful Danish lass happily willing to settle for sloppy seconds, and particularly Orestes Arcuni as Antonia’s severely retarded brother—a performance that proves especially arresting whenever Arcuni straightens instantly from the deformed Marek to magically transform into another character.
Ever want to just crawl under a big sheltering umbrella in the shady backyard of your old family home on a warm summer night and read a great timeless novel to the accompaniment of crickets rather than the overpowering traffic noise emanating from the 101 freeway? Well, then you must head down to PRT this summer, as My Antonia will help put you there, back in that sweetly simple place so lost in the twisted confusion of escalating gas prices, gang warfare, and the dirty politics which have all become so ubiquitous in contemporary America.
My Antonia plays through Aug. 3 at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice CA; for tickets, call 310.822.8392. For more information, visit www.pacificresidenttheatre.com