Adaptations are tricky, especially when they reconfigure well-loved works. Scott Schwartz has made a valiant effort in bringing Willa Cather’s classic novel My ntonia to the stage, and, while he has altered the plot substantially, he has remained true to the spirit and message of the work, which is much darker than its reputation as an agrarian idyll. However, despite his powerful reworking, the end result is mixed.
Shiva Rose is gorgeous and charismatic as ntonia, the Bohemian immigrant girl whose struggles form the focus of the story. The role of Jim Burden, who is both the narrator and the person whose unresolved interest in ntonia triggers the telling of her story, is split between two actors. Kevin Kilner plays the adult James Burden as a misanthropic cipher, someone capable of starting a conversation with the words “I hate my wife.” As young Jim Burden, Michael Redfield is a believably petulant and whiny precursor to his starkly neurotic adult self.
The world of My ntonia-rural Black Hawk, Nebraska, at the end of the 19th century-comes across vividly in the sets and through the sharp and well-coordinated ensemble work. Many of the actors double roles, including the wonderful Julia Motyka, who shines as Lena Lingard, ntonia’s rival among the hired girls for Jim Burden’s affections.
The rub with this production comes when several major scenes from the novel are revised beyond recognition into outright reversals of their originals. In the novel, Jim’s emotional unavailability is established early on when he refuses ntonia’s offer of a silver ring. In the show, he accepts it. Later, when ntonia’s unscrupulous boss Wick Cutter sets a rape trap for her, Jim takes her place and fights him. In the show, ntonia is the one who breaks Cutter’s thumb, and Jim is not involved. Finally, the narrative of the novel springs from Jim’s mixed feelings about the fact that he never properly pursued ntonia as an erotic companion, yet in the play, he proposes to her. None of this should matter, yet taken together it feels as though it does. Polarities have been switched, and despite Schwartz and his cast’s best efforts at juggling, this ntonia falls down.