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Fertile soil, arid heart

Times Staff Writer

A Noise Within’s production of Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” is as spare and beautiful as a field of wheat, as expansive as the Nebraska sky. Yet it leaves the imagination unstirred, the heart unmoved.

Production values aren’t the problem. The staging efficiently transports theatergoers from downtown Glendale to the Nebraska prairie, where settlers of the late 19th century try to coax bounty from an unyielding land.

The harsh majesty of this place is suggested by a backdrop of rich, blue sky in which the billowing clouds seem at once benign and threatening. Planter boxes hold barren soil, which the actors cultivate with hand implements. Scenes unfold like period photographs brought to life.

The performances are similarly evocative, particularly that of Deborah Strang as Alexandra Bergson, a Swedish immigrant abruptly left in charge of a faltering homestead. Even as life stoops her shoulders and creases her face, her eyes blaze with determination.

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Some elemental problems undercut this fine work, however.

Cather’s 1913 novel, inspired by her Nebraska upbringing, was adapted for the stage by Darrah Cloud, with music by Kim D. Sherman.

The story reverberates with quintessentially American themes, and the music echoes folk music, hymns and Aaron Copland Americana -- all of which must have appealed to the classics-minded folks at A Noise Within.

But what to do with material that at one key juncture fast-forwards several years in the pause between scenes, taking the Bergsons from struggling homesteaders to prosperous landowners without so much as hinting at the struggle in between? Humanizing detail is lost in this and other such gaps.

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Working with designers Michael C. Smith (sets), Peter Gottlieb (lights) and Angela Balogh Calin (costumes), directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott come up with images that almost, but not quite, fill in the blanks.

As the Nebraska soil yields to the Bergsons’ efforts, the planter boxes fill to bursting with alfalfa; the sun seems to shine more cheerfully; and rough, dirty clothes are replaced with more prosperous attire.

Meanwhile, grand themes begin to emerge.

Alexandra is able to send her youngest brother, Emil (Thomas Patrick Kelly), to college -- her pioneer spirit having secured a better life for those who follow.

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The flip side of affluence can be seen in brothers Lou (Christopher Gerson) and Oscar (Robert Pescovitz), whose smugness and narrow-mindedness grow with their fortunes.

As for Alexandra: She’s so smart, so strong that even her soul mate (played by co-director Elliott) is intimidated by her. She’s treated as a threat to the emerging order, rather than the necessary distaff side of the American spirit.

An opening-weekend audience paid quiet, dutiful attention to all of this -- so somber that they seemed like students sitting through a history lecture.

And a particularly dry one, at that.

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‘O Pioneers!’

Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale

When: Friday-Saturday and April 16-18, 25-26 and May 15, 8 p.m.; Saturday and April 13, 26 and May 11, 2 p.m.; April 13 and May 11, 7 p.m.

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Ends: May 15

Price: $28-$32

Contact: (818) 240-0910

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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