In 2010, Illusion Theater presented a tightly crafted adaptation of Willa Cather's My Ántonia that delighted audiences and would go on to earn a pair of Ivey Awards.
The company's remounted production retains its charms while bringing the show to the even more intimate confines of the Lab at the Lowry Building. The show's beauty remains intact, while a largely new group of performers has the chance to tell Cather's story of growing up in small-town Nebraska at the end of the 19th century.
My Ántonia looks at this life through the eyes of middle-aged Jim Burden, a man who left Black Hawk 20 years before and never looked back.
Okay, so that's not exactly true. His memories never left him, and on the train taking him home, his thoughts linger on the expansive flatness of the Great Plains, old friends, and their quiet and dull lives.
Topping his memories is Ántonia, the Czech immigrant girl who befriended him on his first day in town as a 10-year-old. The pair grew up together, building a bond that could have carried them through their entire lives.
That missed opportunity hangs over the story without weighing it down. This isn't a maudlin trip back to a home that never really existed, but a celebration of people and community. It's also a tribute to the landscape: the endless prairie, the heavy black dirt, and the fields of wildflowers that rise to the level of characters in the saga.
Almost all of this happens in the viewer's mind, as the play is brought to life through Dean Holzman's simple set (primarily a few rustic platforms) and the hard work of the six-actor company. Only a few projected slides give us a sense of place. Yet the power of the performance — and the clarity of Allison Moore's script, along with Michael Robins's direction — makes it as clear as the boundless Nebraska sky.
Andrea San Miguel leads the company as Ántonia. Her character is fierce, independent, and full of spirit — out of step with the straitlaced time and place.
Jim comes to life through a pair of actors. Dan Hopman plays the contemplative, 40-year-old version, while Zach Keenan takes on the role from our first sight of Jim at age 10 through his college days. Their performances are well-synched, making it easy to see them as two halves of the same man.
Anna Hickey, Ryan Patrick, and Delta Giordano take on numerous roles, giving each a clarity and freshness. Hickey provides a particularly fun double act, playing Ántonia's fiery mother as well as Lena, who breaks through the limitations of the times and builds a life of her own as a dressmaker.
Roberta Carlson provides another major piece of this show's puzzle. Her original music accents, underscores, and even drives the action.
Robins binds all of these elements in a beautifully directed piece of theater, a performance both excellent and moving.