‘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.
‘Blue Ridge,’ An Examination of Soul Rehabilitation in North Carolina, Starring Marin Ireland
How do we tell if our indignation for another’s plight isn’t our own misdirected rage that we ignore at our own peril? How is the healing process from childhood traumas that manifests through addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex and “acting out” initiated? Do those rehabilitating themselves recognize when the process evolves into wellness? How do such individuals recognize the journey to healing? Do they understand all that the arduous process entails before they attempt it? Or do they just move head on and try to change before they are ready because the culture and their anti-social behaviors demand it?
Atlantic Theater Company’s Blue Ridge written by Abby Rosebrock and directed by Taibi Magar raises these questions and many more. The play is superb, but does fall a bit short on one element, despite the fine performances by the ensemble and the excellent production values. The weakness evidences in Rosebrock’s sometimes confounding redirection of focus in examining the protagonist Alison (a nuanced, and layered performance by Marin Ireland whose accent is, at times, ill-executed because she quickly glosses over important, profound lines). Nevertheless, Rosebrock’s work is exceptional in the service of revealing themes which initiate organically from her characters and their interactions with each other, as they rehab in a group home setting.
Currently at the Linda Gross Theater, Blue Ridge takes place at a religious rehabilitation retreat in the gorgeous mountains of western North Carolina (Appalachia). Everpresent are the fundamentalist tenets of Christianity which the characters attempt to espouse and practice. There, at St. John’s Service House, the individuals who have been interviewed and accepted for placement, seek God’s love, forgiveness, joy and peace, reinforced by Sunday church, Wednesday Bible Study, meditation, outside jobs at a pool store and therapeutic group conversation.
However, the process of moving toward wellness is not as easy as it may appear with prayers and Bible work. There must be a complete revolution of one’s soul, a very tricky circumstance indeed; for what is the soul? What is sin? What is the devil? And how do Christian teachings answer psychological traumas? As a key theme which Rosebrock brilliantly reveals, dealing with trauma involves more intricate and complex understanding on a personal level for those who experienced trauma. This involves a life-long process and everyone who undergoes it won’t find any marked yellow brick road at the end of the rainbow. But a good first step is remembering and confronting the trauma alone and/or with expert guidance and love.
The characters, some with overseeing functions like Hern (the pastor played by Chris Stack) and Grace (social worker portrayed by Nicole Lewis) help others, and with empathy and service, seek to rehabilitate themselves. Those, like Alison (Marin Ireland) Wade (Kyle Beltran) and Cole (Peter Mark Kendall), who have been accepted into the program, hope to correct problems which have manifested in self-destructive behaviors. If such behaviors continue, the individuals will be sent to restrictive settings (jail or psychiatric lock up), if they do not improve and heal. Other characters like Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), voluntarily enroll in the program. Cherie knows her own soul’s weaknesses related to her family’s and her own alcoholism. Though she is self-aware, she is blind to her other weaknesses and these set her on a course which may lead to relapse if not confronted.
Rosebrock introduces us to the principals in the first act which largely is humorous exposition to set up the dramatic developments and the climax of the second act. The characters are representational, some with individual problems that run deep but whose cause remains unknown. Their outward issues range from alcohol and drug addictions to anger management issues identified euphemistically as “intermittent explosive disorder.”
Central to the characters’ improvement and social reconstitution is the Wednesday Bible Study where we first meet the others and Alison, a teacher who lost her way and her job because of anger management issues. Alison chose to go to rehab rather than jail for destroying her principal’s car; ironically, he also was the man she “loved.” Marin Ireland’s portrayal reveals Alison’s fierce, hyperbolic and frenetic personality which masks the underlying wounds which Rosebrock intimates but doesn’t clarify by the conclusion of the play.
A word about the character of Alison, who is the linchpin of Rosebrock’s work. One wonders if the play’s dynamism might have been strengthened if Rosebrock had more clearly and with dramatic and active plot points heightened the true issues that fomented Alison’s life-long devastation. At the beginning of Act One, to introduce herself, Alison glibly races through the lines of a song “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood which parallels her behavior that landed her in rehab. We understand that she refers to herself when she quotes: “by this point all the accumulated pain an’ hopelessness, an’ annihilatin degradation, uh’bein a woman in this sexual economy’ve juss… racked the speaker’s brain and body, like a cancer.”
However, we remain unenlightened about the how and the what, even until the end of the play when Wade (Kyle Beltran) confronts her with these lines. Rosebrock never delineates the specifics of Alison’s annihilation and this is key to feeling empathy for her. Though Ireland does a yeowoman’s job in getting us to Alison’s heightened emotional state, our identification with her is muted and unsatisfactory. Perhaps, this is because we do not understand why she hurts so on an individual level. It is not enough to call in the cultural memes as her revelation. The facts and specifics matter; they resonate. But what are they? Thus the fullness and the power of Alison’s emotional state and whether or not she has achieved self-realization to move on to the healing process is opaque. We are not even “seeing through a glass darkly” where she is concerned.
The play turns on Alison’s integration into the program and her recovery. The irony is that she does the work in achieving her external goals and is reinstated as a teacher. However, she doesn’t begin to expurgate the underlying morass of pain in her soul while she is immersed in her sessions and interactions with Wade, Cherie, Hern, Cole, Grace. Indeed, because her self-realizations remain superficial, she becomes the catalyst that exacerbates conflicts and escalates issues for Cherie, Hern, Cole and Grace. As Cherie suggests, Alison blows up a set of circumstances via her own projections. As a result, everything changes for the characters.
Furthermore, Alison doesn’t understand how to get around the humiliation of the negative impact she has afterward. Ironically, though “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” by the end of the play, we see though there are apologies, there is no closure, no forgiveness, no resolution. Each of the individuals is forced to work by himself/herself as the “family” goes its own way in separate directions.
The only one who attempts to deal with himself in an authentic way is Wade. He tries to “make amends” for his not dealing with Alison on a deeper level than he he should have. At the conclusion Wade’s conversation with her is a trigger. However, we do not understand the specifics of the how or why. The rationale appears that she went through something in childhood. So did we all. We are ready to empathize, but are never quite given the chance, a fissure in the play’s development and characterization of Alison.
Rosebrock chooses to develop the play so that the conclusion becomes Alison’s flashpoint of experiencing the pain of her buried, bleeding wounds. The play ends with her emotional breakdown as she appears to allow herself to feel on a deeper level.
This is a risky choice in developing the play.The outcome remains unsatisfying and uncertain. The character Alison, whom we’ve come to accept and appreciate, is a cipher and a conundrum to herself and us. Though Alison has achieved the beginnings of a deep emotional release, Rosebrock sets her spinning in limbo. Any epiphany she might experience is mitigated by questions and doubt. We do not know where her emotional release will take her, nor what specifically it is connected to.
If we did know more about what is “driving her to hydroplane” (a wonderful symbol of her dangerous emotional state), we might have greater empathy. And indeed, if she achieved the makings of an epiphany, we would understand her. The irony is that her emotions belie victimization but we do not understand. Might that have been dramatically revealed to deepen her characterization?
Magar’s direction aptly shepherds the cast as they portray how each of the characters attempts to make their way through their own personal trials that emerge after Alison blows apart the peaceful interactions of the “family” in the second act. These conflict scenes engage us. In the confrontation scene between Alison and Cherie toward the end of the second act, both Lloyd and Ireland hit their target. Their authenticity reveals the extent of Alison’s self-absorption and her misery which spills out onto everyone in the group, especially harming Cherie. This scene is one of the strongest in the play. There are others that work equally well because of fine ensemble work, direction and staging.
Kudos to Adam Rigg (Scenic Designer), Sarah Laux (Costume Designer) Amith Chandrashaker (Lighting Designer) and Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound Designer & Additional Composition) for adhering to themes and establishing the tenor and atmosphere of the play. (The final projection is revelatory and symbolic.)
A word of caution. For some actors, the North Carolinian accents were a distraction that occluded rather than clarified. Whether this was because of character portrayal or under-projection is moot. However, because Kyle Beltran, Kristolyn Lloyd, Peter Mark Kendall (to a lesser extent Chris Stack) didn’t overrun their lines and their projection was a sounding bell, their accents sounded unforced.
The play is a worthy must-see for the performances (despite a few rough patches with accents) and for Rosebrock’s metaphoric writing, humor and intriguing thematic questions. Blue Ridge runs with one intermission at the Linda Gross Theater on 336 20th Street between 7th and 8th until 26 January. For tickets go to the website.