Book-It Repertory Theatre’s My Antonia Draws Connection to Today’s Immigration Story

by Georgia S. McDade

Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia at Center House can make you feel good.

Unlike two recent productions, University of Washington’s Incident at Vichy and Seattle Repertory Theatre’s A 1000 Splendid Suns — both superb, but decidedly less than humorous — My Antonia has many funny parts. Antonia Shimerda and Jim Burden face crises just as characters do in the other works, but here, there is breathing space. Adult Jim’s nostalgia figures prominently, as the play is based on memories dating back to the time 10-year-old Jim and 14-year-old Antonia meet.

The two meet in the Midwest, each living on a farm in Blackhawk, Nebraska. Antonia and her family have immigrated from Bohemia, now called the Czech Republic. Jim has been sent to live with his grandparents because his parents died. But it’s their relationship, not their circumstances, that drives the fascination of the play.  They have an easy relationship, bonding over both having been uprooted, despite their love for the Nebraska plains. They become good friends as Jim teaches the quick-witted Antonia English.

Cather never makes clear exactly how Antonia feels about Jim, though we get a clear picture of his love and admiration for her. Jim admires Antonia’s tenacity and strength. When her father commits suicide, she seems to become physically and mentally stronger, taking over the farm work for her late father.

Later in the play, when her lover abandons her, Antonia returns home pregnant. But instead of allowing herself to dwell on her abandonment, she devotes herself to motherhood and her child. Jim’s life takes a different path, and he attends Harvard University to become a lawyer. By most standards, he has a good life though it appears something is missing. He is still mesmerized by “his” Antonia.

This 135th premier of Book-It, adapted and directed by Annie Lareau, runs almost three hours. With the exception of the characters of Jim and Antonia, all actors of the 14-member cast play more than one role.

Without a doubt Book-It selected this 135th premier long before the caravan originated and made its way to the border. Notably, in the play, little emphasis is placed on the Shimerdas being a family of immigrants. But the theater has a map of the world on a board in the lobby. Theatergoers are asked to place a pin in the country of their origin and tie the points together with red yarn. We are told the United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world, and that one in seven Washington residents is an immigrant; one in eight people born in the U.S. has one immigrant parent; and 18 percent of people in Washington are immigrants.

Director Lareau reminds the audience that all who came here were slaves, refugees, or immigrants. Her plea is that the play may “inspire all of us to continue to fight for the rights of those now arriving on our shores, have compassion as someone surely did for [some of] our ancestors, and unfold the arms of our country to let them in.”

The show runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. There are Sunday matinees Dec. 5, 15, 22, and 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $26 for adults, and $20 for students with valid ID.

Georgia Stewart McDade, a Louisiana native who has lived in Seattle more than half her life, loves reading and writing. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Southern University, Master of Arts from Atlanta University, and Ph. D. from University of Washington. Convinced all of us can learn to write well, McDade conducts and participates in a variety of writing workshops. She has published several books and volunteers at community radio station KVRU (105.7 FM).

Featured Image: Tim Gouran (Jim Burden) and Nabilah S. Ahmed (Ántonia). Photo by John Ulman.