The Southern California premiere of “My Antonia” at the Rubicon Theater has much to recommend it, from its appealing story and versatile cast to a warmly memorable lead perf by Shiva Rose. The story, based on Willa Cather’s novel, is a relatively simple one, but Scott Schwartz’s adaptation and direction unfortunately weigh down the material. At almost three hours, the production is overlong.
While taking a train ride across the Nebraska Plains, lawyer James Burden (Kevin Kilner) remembers his adolescence growing up there in 1884. His younger self, Jim (Michael Redfield), was sent to live with his grandmother (Karen Landry) and grandfather (Robert Lesser) after the deaths of his parents. He becomes friends with Antonia (Rose), the daughter of a neighboring immigrant family, and helps to teach her English. Although Jim and Antonia feel strongly toward each other, their families serve to keep them apart, but their bond never really breaks.
Antonia is the heart and soul of the play, and in a lovely performance, Rose believably portrays the transition from an irrepressible young girl to an adult dealing with the difficulties of the real world to the satisfied mother of seven children. Redfield plays Jim as such a tentative character that one wonders what Antonia sees in him. Landry is sharp as no-nonsense but well-meaning Grandmother, and Lesser does good work as Bible-quoting Grandfather.
Kilner does what he can as James, but Schwartz’s adaptation barely uses his character, to the extent that he spends most of the play sitting at the side of the stage. His character is essentially the narrator, but in a major misstep, Schwartz has taken most of the narration that should be his and unaccountably spread it out among the whole cast, so other actors are regularly speaking lines as James, which adds nothing but confusion. Bob McCracken brings poignancy to his role as Mr. Shimerda, David Rogge is convincingly harsh as Ambrosch, and Orestes Arcuni gives a detailed perf as the disabled Marek. Julia Motyka steals the show as the sly Lena, bringing much-needed humor.
Overall, the production works despite the length and narration problems. Schwartz has a diamond here, but it’s still in the rough. While moments such as a sickbed that turns into a wedding work very well, many other moments could use a more subtle touch. Stephen Schwartz’s bittersweet incidental music, while impressive, is used relentlessly to hammer home every emotional moment. Beowulf Boritt’s blue-sky set is evocative and appropriate, and David Beaudry’s sound design, including clever effects produced by the ensemble, helps to create a specific sense of place.