In her 1995 New Yorker essay “Cather and the Academy,” critic Joan Acocella outlined, entertainingly, the vagaries of Willa Cather’s literary reputation. Short version: It slowly sank until the writer’s work was re-examined through a feminist lens and she was welcomed into the lesbian canon. (Regardless of whether or not Cather would have wanted to be.) Now, with the current administration’s racial fearmongering as a goad, Book-It’s exploring yet another aspect of Cather’s 1915 novel My Ántonia, as adapted and directed by Annie Lareau, mixing racially traditional and nontraditional casting in ways that encourage the audience to view its tale of the immigrant experience in broader terms.
Cather set her novel in the first person, but in the voice of a male narrator, Jim Burden—a provocative choice considering that during her own teenage years, she signed her name “William Cather” and aspired to being a doctor. As the novel opens, the young Jim is relocating from Virginia to Nebraska, as Cather did herself as a child, cementing the identification. (At the same time, Cather throws you off the scent by writing herself, “Willa Cather,” into the novel’s framing device.) Right away Jim meets a Czech family of newcomers, the Shimerdas, and begins an enduring but nonsexual friendship with the forceful oldest daughter Ántonia. Though Cather links the two in her two-word title, she defiantly keeps them on independent paths where any other author would have ended the book with their marriage. (Why did it take decades for all this to be recognized as groundbreaking? Because, as Acocella points out, progressiveness in art was seen strictly in terms of economics, certainly not of gender.)
By including several actors of color—most prominently Bangladeshi-Muslim Nabilah S. Ahmed as Ántonia—Book-It amassed a cast that resembles the melting pot America has long prided itself on being—though not so often achieved—building another level of innovation atop Cather’s and extending her novel into a complementary and enriching dimension. Ántonia and her family endure hardships, struggle for acceptance, assert their independence, pursue work—and the ethnic diversity onstage keeps you constantly aware of the variegated experiences of other immigrants throughout America’s history up to today’s front page.
Is so much subtext obtrusive? No, for three reasons. First, Cather’s style, her language and plotting, are as straightforward and elemental as the Nebraska landscape that was such a profound inspiration for her. Second, Book-It’s production is equally uncomplicated; Julia Hayes Welch’s scenic design involves a bare set, a few movable set pieces, and cinematic projected backdrops—beautiful ones, snowfall and stars. Third, My Ántonia is a showcase for breathtaking acting like few productions I have seen. It includes performances in which the virtuosity is apparent—for instance Tim Gouran as Jim, Jasmine Jean Sim as the alluring but proudly independent Lena Lingard, and Ahmed herself, whose Ántonia is a radiant life force. It includes others so unstudied and naturalistic, it’s as though Book-It simply found the characters themselves passing by on the street and invited them in: Barbara Lindsay as Jim’s grandmother, Tyler Trerise as farmhand Jake. Then there are the magical transformations (only Ahmed and Gouran don’t play multiple roles): William Hall Jr., and Judith Shahn play first Ántonia’s rough-edged parents, later her genteel employers. All this is the more amazing considering Book-It’s familiar house style, in which the actors are given not only dialogue but stage directions and other descriptions in the novel’s own words—a device that never, even as they’re breaking the fourth wall, distances you from the extraordinary realness of the characters and the power of the story.