Get to know the cast of My Antonia!

February 3, 2012

My Antonia will be kicking off the first leg of its 2012 Minnesota Tour this weekend, and we had the chance to chat with a few of the actors–including Emily Gunyou Halaas (Antonia), Dustin Bronson (Young Jim), and Jennifer Maren (Lena)–about motivates them while performing in this Ivey Award-winning adaptation of an American classic.

What kind of excitement and challenges have you found while preparing for this production of My Antonia?

Dustin: It’s the little things that the new cast members bring to the play that change everything. Especially Emily as Antonia—how she is, greatly affects Jim. Emily is more physical with me; she is a little rougher. I really enjoy that. The way Clarence Wethern as Ambrosch hands me the harness, he thrusts it into my chest. It changes the way Jim reacts. It’s exciting to have these changes. I played Jim last winter and now I get to do it again. I’ve never got to do the same role within a year. Lines that I heard last year, I hear differently this year. That’s from living another year.

How so?

Dustin: I have been rereading the book My Antonia again. In the book, there is a scene which isn’t in our play, about how Mr. Shimerda’s spirit was in the house with Jim after the Shimerda family discovers that Mr. Shimerda is dead.

“Presently, as I looked with satisfaction about our comfortable sitting-room, it flashed upon me that if Mr. Shimerda’s soul were lingering about in this world at all, it would be here, in our house, which had been more to his liking than any other in the neighborhood. I remember his contented face when he was with us on Christmas Day. If he could have lived with us, this terrible thing would never have happened…
I was not frightened…
I thought and thought about Mr. Shimerda… it was as if I had let the old man in out of the tormenting winter, and were sitting there with him. I went over all that Antonia had ever told me about his life before he came to this country; how he used to play the fiddle at weddings and dances. I thought about the friend he had mourned to leave, the trombone player, the great forest full of game—belonging, as Antonia said, to the “nobles”—from which she and her mother used to steal wood on moonlight nights… Such vivid pictures came to me that they might have been Mr. Shimerda memories, not yet faded out from the air in which they had haunted him.”
–page 64 from My Antonia by Willa Cather, Barnes & Nobel Edition 2003

Dustin: When Antonia asks me, “Do you think my Papa’s spirit can go back there? All the old places he loved?” I respond, “I’m sure of it.” This year, I actually do feel sure Mr. Shimerda’s spirit finds his way back.

Jen : This is my first experience working with Illusion. It’s always tricky to come into a show that has been done before, to make your role your own, and still give creedence to the people who did it before. This play is a beautiful, lovely piece, and there are times when I am off stage and I’m able to observe it. When you read the novel there is all this language about the grasses, and when I read those passages I thought, “You can’t do that onstage or everyone will be asleep!” Allison [Moore, the playwright] adapted it so well, the way it moves, it flows together, it sweeps along. Playing Lena… Lena is so different than Antonia and everyone else.
It’s such a contrast between Lena and Antonia.

Emily: Both Lena and Antonia are strong, not because they are hard, but because they are generous. Initially, I was scared to come into this production. Katie Guentzel (who originated the role of Antonia) is a friend—she won an award for this role—and I didn’t want to disappoint her or myself.

Emily: Antonia is such a beautiful character; she moves forward. The beauty of her generosity, her curiosity. She has no judgment: “This is what is.” She has no shame about anything. It isn’t that she is fool-hardy, it’s not pride. To her, the world is open and generous. Playing her is really freeing. The moments of regret; the moments of sadness are so rich because they are so earned. Being Antonia has helped me overcome my fear.

Emily: I’ve done several adaptations, this adaptation is so well built, and follows such a beautiful line without losing the arc of who these people are.

Dustin: The scene on the roof is my favorite moment. The rest of the play, Antonia is always pulling me around. But then, Antonia and I just get to sit there, sitting outside in the rain, sitting with my best friend.

Emily: In that scene we see the power of the rain and how Antonia and Jim are apart of the land and the landscape. The awesomeness of all that.

“Things will be easy you. But they will be hard for us.” – from My Antonia
Where do you think Antonia gets her strength?

Emily: For some people, strength is standing up to what opposes us. Antonia has another kind of strength–her strength comes from being open to what opposes her.

How do you relate this classic story from the 19th Century to modern times?

Jen: Although it takes place in the 1880’s, this play is contemporary. When Antonia tells the story of how a tramp comes to join the threshing and asks for a beer, he is told the Norwegians “don’t have no beer” when they thresh. Then the tramp says, “I thought this was Americky.”

Dustin: Right now so many people are so upset about immigrants, but so many of us immigrated here to this continent. And yet people today say, “Well, that was different"; they make a distinction between immigrants from Europe back then, and immigrants of today. When we were on tour last year, we played in communities where there were First Generation immigrants, and they so related to Antonia’s story. I am proud of my ancestors who came here as immigrants; I don’t understand how other people whose families came here as immigrants long ago can be so harsh to pass judgment on today’s immigrants.

Just for fun, if you could play a different literary character, who would you choose?

Jen: Claire Randall from the Outlander series. She is strong, principled, and fiercely loving.

Dustin: I want to play a lady, like Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest. Do you know the Bourne Identity Series? They’ve been made into movies, but they watered down the character of Bourne. He is radical; I want to play someone really radical. It is the opposite of Jim Burden; Jim is so not Jason Bourne.

Emily: I would love to play the character Father Damien from Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. He is in hiding, a woman in disguise as a man, he is tortured and generous.

“After returning from despair Father Damien loved not only the people but also the very thingness of the world.” –The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

Stay tuned for more from the other cast members of My Antonia in the coming weeks as they tour across the state!

Don't forget to buy your tickets for the limited-engagement run of My Antonia at The Cowles Center February 16-19.

My Antonia is on tour throughout Minnesota this spring. For more information about the tour dates and locations, check out the tour page or e-mail jrobins@illusiontheater.org.