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Bringing a classic story to life: My Ántonia at the Station Theatre

My Ántonia, now playing at the Station Theatre in Urbana, takes Willa Cather’s classic novel about the struggles of pioneers on the plains of Nebraska and brings it beautifully to life. The play, adapted by Urbana native Jarrett Dapier and directed by Gary Ambler and Joi Hoffsommer, excels in both performances and technical aspects, and I recommend it to everyone, whether you’re familiar with the novel or not.

I haven’t read Cather’s novel, so I went into the show unfamiliar with the story, but I quickly found myself interested and engaged in the plot. The narrator, Jim Burden (played by Gary Ambler), reflects on his childhood, telling the story of moving to live with his grandparents in Nebraska in the late 1800s, and meeting Ántonia, a Bohemian girl who promptly becomes his friend. They take different paths in life and go through tragedies and hardships, but their bond is one that can never be broken.

One of the things I like about the Station Theatre (and black box theaters in general) is its versatility. The set makes great use of the small space, and minimal props are used, but it’s all enough to make the show believable. The lighting was also great, and it made me realize how crucial it is to a show — it can make a good play into a great one.

The actors demonstrated their versatility, as well. Jesse Angelo, who plays the young Jim, was convincing and believable as both a rambunctious child and a studious young adult. Stephanie Swearingen plays Ántonia and is equally great, easily going from a shy young girl to rebellious teen to devoted mother. She and several other actors speak Czech during the show, which I was very impressed by — learning that couldn’t have been easy!

The rest of the ensemble played multiple roles during the play’s three acts. While all of the performances were good, I was a little bit confused during the first act, when a couple of the actors looked much younger than the characters they were supposed to be playing. As the show went on, I understood this more, since the ensemble actors had to play both older and younger characters with minimal time in between, but I would have liked to see some changes in costuming or makeup to make this distinction a little bit more clear.

The only other small issue I had with the show was with the pacing. My Ántonia is a three-act play with two intermissions. While it’s not a very long show even with the two intermissions, I felt that they slowed the pacing down a bit. Because the story has three distinct parts, I understand Dapier’s reasoning for having three acts, but I would have been fine with just one intermission.

But that’s just me being nitpicky. Adapting a classic and beloved story for the stage is no easy task, but Dapier, who writes and performs in Chicago, has pulled it off. It’s also a reminder of the fact that presenting a great play requires more than just great performances — the sets, the lighting, the sound, and all of the technical aspects have to come together as well.

If you’ve read the book, the stage version of My Ántonia should be a loyal adaptation, and if you haven’t, the play is an excellent introduction. The novel is now at the top of my “To Read” list, and thanks to the Station’s fantastic interpretation of the story, I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

My Ántonia runs on Wednesday through Sunday nights, through December 17. All shows are at 8:00 p.m. To reserve tickets, call the Station Theatre at (217) 384-4000 or visit its website.

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