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Adaptation of ‘My Ántonia’ takes stage at The Midwest

February 15, 2019

SCOTTSBLUFF — “My Ántonia,” the seminal novel by Nebraska author Willa Cather, celebrates its 100th birthday with a touring theatrical production of the same name by acclaimed Minneapolis-based company, Illusion Theater. The tour includes a public performance at the Midwest Theater on Thursday, Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m.

“My Ántonia” was originally published in 1918 and is final book in Cather’s “prairie trilogy”, which includes “O Pioneers!” and “The Song of the Lark.” The novel tells the stories of Jim Burden, an orphaned boy from Virginia, and Ántonia Shimerda, the eldest daughter of a family of Bohemian immigrants farming on the plains at the end of the 19th century. The story explores the relationships formed on the plains, and the challenges faced by immigrant homesteaders in Nebraska. The play, “My Ántonia,” is translated from the novel by playwright Allison Moores and produced by the acclaimed Minneapolis theater company, Illusion Theater. The theatrical adaptation was developed during Illusion’s 2009 Fresh Ink Series, which won two Ivey Awards.

Minneapolis-based Freelance Actor Shae Palic plays the roles of Mrs. Harling, Grandma Burden, and Tiny Soderball, said during an interview Wednesday that this is her first time working with Illusion Theater. The company rehearsed the play three weeks before hitting the road for performances at Lincoln’s Lied Center for Performing Arts on three nights last week, and Monday night in Kearney at the Merryman Performing Arts Center, with a student matinée on Tuesday.

“Lincoln had full houses the whole time, and lost of kids got to come,” she said. “In Kearney we had a big snow Storm and still a ton of people were able to come out.”

As the troupe has traveled, they’ve also stopped at area schools to do outreach and workshops with some of the high school theatre programs.

“We stopped at Scottsbluff High School and work with the Advance Acting workshop and the Intro to Acting students,” Palic said. “I was impressed. They really got into it.”

Palic said that she has been re-reading Cather’s novel back stage in-between her character’s appearances, and she has noticed some differences.

“There’s a lot to cover in the novel, with a lot of characters,” she said. “Our show has six actors and there’s a lot that we didn’t get to hit, but I think we really captured the essence of the story.”

And there are parallels in the play to political discussions currently being had on the national level, especially surrounding immigration.

“(The Theme) of ‘welcoming arms’ is definitely present in the novel, and in the adaptation in the play,” Palic said. “We’ve done some talk backs with audiences and a women in Kearney said that it was amazing how the play speaks to our situation today, and offers that sort of welcoming.”

There is also a dynamic between city-dwellers and country folk that has been translated from the book to the stage.

“There are some lines that Ántonia has about the city life and how it’s not for her because there’s not even a place for her to hang her laundry,” Palic said.

And as the story closes, Jim returns to rural Nebraska after 20 years of working as a successful lawyer on the East Coast. He’s suddenly hit with the sense of love and expansiveness that Ántonia has kept her whole life.

On Illusion Theater’s website there’s a quote from the company’s Producing Director, Bonnie Morris: “The theater is a safe place to feel dangerous things, discomforting things or controversial things. We can rehearse ‘new realities’ on our stage.”

Palic agrees with this assessment.

“There are a lot of important questions on our minds, especially today in our current political, social and economic culture,” she said. “This is the sort of space that we can drop our guard and talk about the actual issues of the human experience.

“We’re all enjoying the same story.”

The play is presented at the Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff in partnership with the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

Tickets are $22 for members and students, $26 for non-members

To purchase tickets, stop in at the Midwest Theater, 1707 Broadway, Scottsbluff, call 308-632-4311, buy at the door or buy online at MidwestTheater.com