Behind every great book is at least one fan who thinks it would make a great movie, or play or opera. But while some literary classics prove easily adapted into other media, others play hard-to-get for good reason. One such holdout is Willa Cather’s 1913 “My Antonia,” a fictive turn-of-the-century Nebraska Plains remembrance that’s richly evocative but diffuse and anecdotal. Those aren’t qualities that transfer well to the dramatic stage, as adapter-director Scott Schwartz’s attempt duly bears out. This slice of Americana never quite finds the epic gravitas or strong character center that might make its three-hour span more than a pleasantly amorphous experience.
The play has its heart in the right place. But its brains inevitably work at odds with Cather’s own, which had little use for overt psychologizing, inspirational uplift or the blunt melodramatic incident — the plainspoken nose-to-plow nature of her protagonists would have been embarrassed or baffled by any such things.
Thus this “Antonia” compromises, creating pat conflicts where there were just ambivalent suggestions, heightening everyday hard-life incidents toward set-piece emotionality. Those tweaks don’t improve upon the novel, nor do they work especially well on their own stage terms. It’s emblematic of the play’s struggle that it emerges as an awkward almost-musical — Schwartz’s famous father, Stephen (“Godspell,” “Wicked”), contributes incidental music here, while early on the cast sings vintage folk songs and hymns. Later, the quasi-musical aspect just peters out.
Jim Burden (Michael Butler) narrates during a cross-country journey that takes him from adult East Coast home to San Francisco, passing through the Nebraska territory where he spent his youth. After his parents’ tragic death, he was sent off to live with previously unmet grandparents (Cass Morgan, J. Hayden Williams), remaining in the state through college years. Schwartz gives this nostalgic journey a rather pat middle-age-crazy catharsis not in the novel, and also makes young flashback’d Jimmy (Ian Leonard) more peevish in a distinctively modern way.
Locus of Jim’s recollections en route is Antonia (Jessica Myers), who traveled on the same initial train westward with her Norwegian immigrant family. Slightly older, she was his playmate and English-language pupil until crises in the more hard-up Shimerda clan forced her to take on adult responsibilities at an early age.
Later, when scholastically tilted Jimmy heads toward university, Antonia is seduced and abandoned by a flashy suitor. As older Jim discovers (once he steps off the train for an impromptu reunion years later), she survived and flourished as mistress of her own Nebraskan farm dynasty.
“I t’ink it’s wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other,” titular figure gushes to her erstwhile pal after decades of separation. That all-purpose sentiment is the best Schwartz can summon out of a text that just doesn’t lend itself to crowd-pleasing dramatic simplification. Waxing wistful over the Gal Who Got Away, the evening emerges as a pre-Great War “Summer of ’42.”
With four musicians perched onstage amidst the elements of Joe Ragey and Daniela Nelke’s not especially aesthetic set, “My Antonia” needs a bolder design hand.
It’s fortunate in having found an Antonia who is understatedly radiant, a common-sense Plains enchantress. But just as thesp Meyers refuses to go for scene-hogging effects, in synch with Cather’s vision, so the play falls short of establishing a definite emotional anchor. As the young/older Jims, Butler and Leonard have an uphill struggle against irksome character conceits.
The novel’s vivid supporting figures are compressed with variable success here, though played with some verve by multiply cast actors. Among few figures allowed sustained development is seamstress Lena, a charmer in Lianne Marie Dobbs’ bubbly perf.