‘Little Women,’ Kate Hamill’s Riveting Update of Louisa May Alcott’s Feminist Classic
Oh the tragedy of being a brilliant woman out of her time and place who must, with probity, slip into “becoming” without making too many waves! Kate Hamill’s profound update of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is presented by Primary Stages at The Cherry Lane Theatre as a two act comedy/drama that reveals how the March sisters adapt or transform the gender roles that the culture dictates for them. The play focuses on Alcott’s view of women during the Civil War when hardship was plentiful and economic pressures were acutely felt by families such as the financially strapped Marches.
Hamill’s update speaks with currency for our time revitalizing the novel with forward-thinking elements as it highlights the 4 sisters and draws comparisons between and among them. Interestingly, Hamill develops their personalities revisiting Alcott’s plot structure and character foundation. But her characterizations gain breadth when she teases out themes and traits relevant to woman today.
The play parallels the salient turn of events in the novel and examines the “little women” as they age into their own perceptions of “womanhood” with regard to the role limitations afforded to women when the only careers available to them were as governesses, caretakers, wives and mothers. Women could not vote, were considered mental inferiors to men who could have them committed to an asylum if they “got out of line.” As wives they were men’s property, chattel to do with them as they pleased, command them as they would under the law. Fortunate are the Marches whose father is an abolitionist and a pastor who is loving toward his wife and children and does not batter them.
In Hamill’s reconfiguration there is an understanding of each of the sisters with an eye on the present. The play’s development concerns how Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy adopt the roles that they will choose and perhaps inhabit for life. In this Hamill has extracted key concepts and fleshed them out to examine the underlying threads of what Alcott inferred but could not write about extensively in order to negotiate the accepted folkways and mores of her culture at the time.
The playwright highlights Beth (a heartfelt performance by Paola Sanchez Abreu) as the spiritual one whose physical weakness and confrontation with the death of the Hummel baby impact her understanding of life’s mutability. As Jo (Kristolyn Lloyd) dubs her “the conscience.” Beth is the one who speaks truth to power quietly, solidly, steadfastly. Bravely, she alone visits Mr. Laurence (John Lenartz) and softens his heart toward allowing Laurie (Nate Mann) to become a part of their family. Wisely, she soothes Laurie’s wounds when Joe spurns his marriage offer. Insistently, she encourages Jo to write from her heart’s core, not from fantastic plots that glorify the male gender and make women into weak creatures. She reconciles the family during quarrels, especially the final explosive argument between the two most antithetical women in the family, Jo and Amy (Carmen Zilles).
In her adaptation Hamill enhances Beth’s wisdom and beauty and highlights the strength of her soul. This is a wonderful teasing out of the characteristics of who she is, the first to be herself and eschew female “type” changing for no one, not even Jo who changes for her. That all the family accept Beth, even Amy, clearly emphasizes her dominion.
The costume design by Valerie Therese Bart superbly reflects each of the characters as Hamill has drawn them. Jo is forever in pants; in polite company, she wears a skirt over her pants. Beth doesn’t wear the outfits the others wear. She is more soul and spirit and thus, she wears invalid gowns of her physical weakness throughout the play. Of all the sisters Beth is perhaps the most actualized. She has “become” before our eyes and thus, is the strong woman which we might take for granted as weak or inconsequential.
Following Hamill’s characterization and apt direction by Sarna Lapine, Abreu’s Beth is subtle strength and quiet wisdom. Yet, she is vibrant and determined when she needs to be in Act II, forcefully chiding Jo (the vibrant, exquisite Kristolyn Lloyd) to shake off self-pity and stir herself to her life’s work as a mature writer with a unique, personal style. She is the sister that is “the rock,” not Jo who is a performer, writer, actor, but mush within, less “together” than the Jo of the novel. This is especially so when her novel is rejected and Beth gives her the resolve and courage to persist and write about what she knows best, the wonderful memories of her family.
The characterization of Meg enacted with with precision and humor by Kate Hamill who portrays Meg, provides the view of womanhood as poised perfection, feminine and graceful. She is the “perfect lady.” Indeed, Meg’s putting on airs at the dance and reminding a bored Jo by coughing to alert her to correct her unlady-like behavior is one of the hysterical highpoints of the production. But her poise at the dance is shattered when she takes off her glasses and becomes dislocated, having to be led around by Brooks (Michael Crane) Laurie’s tutor whom she eventually marries.
The irony of having to be led around by a man because of her myopia is symbolic of what ails women who too easily swallow the culture’s gender roles. Meg has proudly fit herself into the wifely mold until she collapses hammered by the reality of the role’s oppression in a superbly portrayed scene by Hamill, Crane and Lloyd. Meg leaves Brooks and returns home, confiding to Jo her desperation because she is overcome by the impossible reality of domestic life, motherhood and male expectations that the household be run in perfect order every day.
Hamill’s “freak-out” as Meg is both humorous and dramatic. Her fine performance of the scene first with Jo and then with Brooks who is contrite and apologetic, strikes like lightening. Meg goes back to him after she has asserted what she will and won’t put up with and we sense he is a reasonable man; thus, the development of a relationship that is the hope of a partnership of give and take forms. Michael Crane is excellent as Brooks and authentic in his portrayal of the retiring, erudite tutor who, too, falls prey to the gender roles of the time to not fully recognize that he needs to “man up” and help out Meg.
For her part Jo has witnessed in Meg’s and Brook’s quarreling, what she will never put herself through. Her identity, encouraged by Beth, Marmie (the wonderful Mary Bacon) and Meg’s trials with Brooks convince her she must forge her own sense of self and career path that is equivalent to those men which men achieve. Meg’s troubles assure her that her decision not to flirt with, capture a man’s heart then be oppressed and saddled with drudgery the rest of her life as his handmaid will never be her portion.
Kristolyn Lloyd’s Jo is a dominant force, a powerhouse who is driven to express herself. With her soul, will and determination throughout the play again and again, Lloyd succinctly portrays how it is Jo’s nature to eschew being the passive, demure, “lady” who must portray an illusion to catch a man, then spend the rest of her life with him overthrowing that lie. Unlike Amy and Meg, she and Beth reject the repressive folkways which dictate how women must act, how they must look, what they must wear and do, as they take their final “resting place” at the bottom of society, absent power and authority, never to be heard from again. That is a death Jo and Beth will never die!
Initially, when Laurie (the vibrant Nate Mann makes the character charming, endearing, sensitive and adorable) joins the family and takes part as a swashbuckler in Jo’s plays, he accepts Jo’s strong identity though she continually throws off “being” the passive feminine. Laurie finds her enthralling and exciting company and adjusts his growing friendship by being real and loving. He notes that Joe sees herself like him and he appears to understand that she covets male power, authority and the freedom to take women’s freedom from them. This is why she revels acting the preeminent roles in her plays with Meg as the “damsel in distress” that she fights Laurie for.
The “play” scenes are humorous and cogently, precisely directed by Sarna Lapine and well-acted by Mann, Hamill, Abreu, Lloyd and Carmen Zilles as Amy who largely is their audience. These scenes establish each of the characters and reveal the undercurrents of why Jo must take on the dominant parts. We understand it is an attempt to work through what she finds completely obnoxious in the gender role of the passive, submissive, weak and helpless little lady that men find so alluring for they can come to their rescue and be the macho man. The artificiality and unreality of these roles annoys Jo, though Mann’s Laurie, inculcated to them since boyhood attempts to get Jo to play the damsel when Meg gets married. Her refusal is telling in another superb scene by Mann and Lloyd which foreshadows their maturation and Laurie’s love for her which Jo will never return as a lover. (Mann’s heartfelt upset when Lloyd’s Jo rejects him is beautifully rendered.)
The reversals are hysterical, as is Jo’s need to change the fake male-female dynamic. The humor in the overacting of Hamill’s Meg and Lloyd’s Jo to heighten the fake gender displacement is priceless and profound. That the enactment of the plays serves to reveal that Jo defines herself as equal to a man. Indeed, she intends to have the same notoriety and authority by making herself “someone recognized.” Though the culture would deny her, she will find a way, something Marmie, Meg (she is agreeable to join in the acting) and Beth encourage her to do with their acceptance and support. These scenes are powerful and filled with moment!
The only one who does not accept Jo’s definition of herself and her way of being is Amy. Carmen Zilles convincingly portrays Amy as a spoiled, insistent, victim of Jo. Their disagreements not only move beyond rivalry, they represent opposing forces of womanhood. Amy has no ambition beyond marriage; and in a few funny bits aptly staged by Lapine, we see how she sets her designs on Laurie as she tries to get him to kiss her by standing under the mistletoe. At the conclusion of the play Amy insults Jo’s entire being and encourages her to give up her ambitions. We side with Jo’s anger against Amy; the burning of Jo’s book is tantamount to a blasphemy.
Amy brings to mind conservative women who marry well and stand by their man without a clue, staunchly upholding him regardless of the incorrectness of his position. She is Jo’s foil and their fights are inevitable so convinced are they of their definitions of themselves as women: Amy traditional, Jo a maverick forward thinker who wishes equality with men.
Jo’s behavior at Aunt March’s (Mary Bacon is superb as the crotchety old woman) causes Amy to be taken to Europe instead of Jo. Amy’s vengeful burning of Jo’s only copy of her novel is the perfect raison d’etre for Jo to launch out on a new endeavor and succeed. Zilles and Lloyd shine in these dynamic scenes of argument and insult. Amy and Jo’s sustained oppositions spur each other on in the paths they’ve chosen with irony and humor. Without Jo, Amy would not be who she is; likewise for Jo. Their’s is a perfect match brought into focus in this fine rendering of Hamill’s Little Women whose elucidations of the themes and characterizations are revelatory and uniquely realized. Just marvelous.
Hamill’s adaptation of Little Women and Lloyd’s portrayal of Jo, Abreu’s Beth, Hamill’s Meg and Zilles’ Amy enlighten us to the power of entrenched gender roles whose folkways and stereotypes we wrestle with our entire lives. The ironies and themes of how each sister deals with these mores is incredible and found in no other adaptation of the novel that I have seen. Gobsmacking! Whether viewing for the depth of understanding or the pure fun and enjoyment and in Act II pathos of the family March, Little Women is a wondrous must see.
Special kudos to Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams for the functional and minimalistic set design. Much praise goes to Valerie Therese Bart’s superbly thought-out costumes and Paul Whitaker’s lighting design whose candles in Act II are heartfelt and atmospheric. Additional kudos to Leon Rothenberg for sound design, Dave Bova for wig and hair design, Michael G. Chin’s fight direction. Deborah Abramson’s original music between scenes is exceptional, atmospheric, lyrical. Without it the action would not have achieved such a seamless flow. The exuberance of Act I and the mellow seriousness of Act II would have been diminished in tone and tenor.
Little Women runs with one intermission at Cherry Lane Theatre (Commerce St.) until 29th June. Get your tickets before it is too late by CLICKING HERE.