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REVIEW: Evocative, Lush My Àntonia Returns (Illusion Theater)

The cast of the Illusion Theater’s 2019 remount of My Àntonia, now playing in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of the Illusion Theater.

My grandparents’ bookshelf had some novels whose titles caught my eye, long ago: Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. Peek into senior centers and community libraries and you’ve probably seen copies of these pioneer tales of Westerners settling the Great Plains. What I didn’t know, however, was that there’s a spiritual sequel, a third in the trilogy: My Àntonia, which is now considered Cather’s first true masterpiece. This is the source material for the stage adaptation by playwright Allison Moore that is now playing at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis.

Some playwrights and composers are obsessed with a compact, well-made play. Moore’s script clocks in at 90 minutes and is brought to life by a talented ensemble of six actors: Annie Schiferl, Dan Hopman, Ryan Dean Maltz, Olivia Wilusz, Shae Palic, and Corey Farrell. Michael Robins directs a highly evocative evening of storytelling, laced with wistful nostalgia and a sense of epochal transformation.

In an age where environmental change is both greatly pressing and hotly debated, that combination of nostalgia and transformation is especially relevant. Watching these characters grow up in Nebraska – in more ways than one – is as engrossing as it is beautifully painted with the simple but effective projections and the soundtrack by Roberta Carlson. Annie Schifert’s performance of Ántonia is not one to miss.

Did You Know?

  • Novelist Willa Cather began her writing career with the women’s magazine Home Monthly and worked as an editor and drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader before she started publishing her fiction writing and poetry.
  • Cather’s Shadows on the Rock was the most popular novel in the United States in 1931, provoking attacks from critics who tried to dismiss her as a “romantic, nostalgic writer who could not cope with the present.” These critics were mostly less successful male novelists.
  • The Illusion Theater’s current production launched with a 13-show tour of Nebraska, where much of the play’s story is set, in February 2019. The tour was underwritten by a grant from Arts Across Nebraska.

My Àntonia plays at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, MN through March 24.

Amy Donahue