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Erika Rolfsrud and Gregory Jackson in O Pioneers!
(Photo: Ken Howard)
Willa Cather's O Pioneers! is reminiscent of the La Rochefoucauld maxim that goes, "It's not enough that I succeed; my friends must fail." Her 1913 novel comes across today, and perhaps always might have, as a variation on the elegant French cynic's saying: "It's not enough that women are strong; men must be weak."

This is the not-so-subtle message delivered by Cather along with her portrait of the solid, stolid Alexandra Bergson, who runs the turn-of-the-century Nebraska farm that her father left in her charge (rather than in the charge of her brothers Oscar, Lou, and young Emil). Yes, Cather's writings are authentically pre-feminist and introduced a new kind of heroine to a nation where women strong enough to work the land along with their fathers, brothers and sons were not the standard stuff of fiction.

Along with the equality (not to say the superiority) of women, "the land" and its enduring value is a major issue here. With its constant references to the supreme importance of the land, O Pioneers! is probably the first in a series of love-the-soil works (including Pearl Buck's The Good Earth and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind) that became popular by the 1930s. But, since it is from Cather's canon, O Pioneers! is respectable at a time when that author's followers have lost the considerable cachet they once had. The Women's Project, which initially presented Darrah Cloud's adaptation, would understandably be taken with its primary theme and less sensitive to any subsidiary news flashes it contains. The earlier production having been filmed and shown on PBS, the Project has now brought in The Acting Company's somewhat tweaked version of O Pioneers!.

In it, Alexandra (Erika Rolfsrud) remains the family anchor, putting up with the thick-headedness exhibited by her older brothers (Gregory Jackson and Royden Mills) over the question of when to buy and sell property and what crops to plant on it. She is still determined that her youngest brother, Emil (Evan Robertson), will have the opportunities for education that she didn't have--whether he wants them or not. Alexandra is still in love with Carl Linstrum, a gentle neighbor always on the move because he can't seem to find himself. Carl, incidentally, gets to deliver a speech about the tenuousness of big-city life that made the New Yorkers with whom I saw the play noticeably uneasy about paying rent and not getting to wallow in nature.

Although there are some aspects of her hardscrabble existence over which Alexandra has some control, there are others that she can only grin and bare, and endure/ (Endurance is what O Pioneers!--with its hopeful but not necessarily realistic exclamation point--is really about.) Alexandra has little say over what her pompous, intolerant brothers choose to do with their lives and wives, nor can she really dictate to the young and willful Emil. When Emil falls in love with Marie (Grace Hsu), a childhood friend unhappily married to the disgruntled farmer Frank (Michael Thomas Holmes), Alexandra doesn't even see the tragic end to which their illicit liaison seems to be leading inexorably.

Cloud's treatment of Cather's episodic tale about weathering the fates as well as the elements is, like Steppenwolf's adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, a familiar dramaturgical one involving an all-purpose set on which actors come and go, hugging themselves when it's meant to be cold and wiping their brows when it's meant to be hot. They get plenty of chance to do so, because of the repeated references to weather. Since Alexandra has trouble talking with Carl, they mostly discuss the air temperature; symbolically, their first conversation ends with her saying that tomorrow will be colder, while their last exchange includes her comment that tomorrow will be warmer.

The Acting Company actors get to display many accents, not all of them successful, in O Pioneers!. The Nebraska community depicted here is populated by Swedes, Germans, Frenchmen, and Bohemians in a harmony that didn't exist in many other areas of turn-of-the-century America. They get to sing a good deal, too, although vocal prowess isn't their long suit. The songs in this play-with-music have lyrics by Cloud and melodies by Kim D. Sherman. They're notable for being loose in form and unrhymed, for the most part; "The wheels roll on" is how one of the anthems begins, and another proclaims, "My mind is a scythe/My eyes are a plow" (or something like that). Cloud does use rhymes later in the play, perhaps meaning to suggest a new polish entering the Nebraska manners and mores.

In the end the Acting Company builds to a strong finish in the same way that Alexandra does: They soldier on. Earnestness may not be exciting, but it is, as Oscar Wilde noted, important. Rolfsrud, a Sarah Ferguson look-alike in braids, makes Alexandra's stolidity admirable if not entertaining. Mills, Robertson, Jackson, Evans, Hsu, and Holmes confidently flesh out Cather's gritty supporting figures. Richard Corley has directed them in the choral-recitation style typical of these sorts of group efforts, and Loy Arcenas has designed the set, including one interior wall of a sturdy wood home on which is painted an outdoor scene. The implication is that, even when these hard-working Nebraskans are indoors, they're outdoors.

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