By Kate Hamill; Directed by Sarna Lapine
Produced by Primary Stages
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 6.29.19
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
by Asya Gorovits on 6.17.19
Kate Hamill, Carmen Zilles, Ellen Harvey, Paola Sanchez Abreu, and Kristolyn Lloyd in Little Women. Photo by James Leynse.
BOTTOM LINE: Kate Hamill champions the right of queer teenagers to be what they want in her new adaptation of Little Women.
After triumphant adaptations of literary behemoths like Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair, actor-playwright Kate Hamill takes a stab at the American children’s classic, Little Women. The beloved story of four teenage sisters growing up during the Civil War is treated with love and care, yet is modernized to appeal to a 21st-century audience. I am sorry to disappoint those who expect "Louisa May Alcott on steroids": You won’t find the sky-high levels of irony and absurdity that have become Hamill's signature. However, the force of the compressed and restructured source material is still present, this time fueled with gentleness and kindness rather than social criticism.
It seems like Hamill has packed nearly all the wild energy carried over from her previous productions in the character of Meg, whom she plays herself. Unexpectedly, the oldest sister becomes a neurotically tense and angry source of comic relief to the play. Every other scene turns into gag comedy (attending a high society dance) or sad clownery (complaining to Jo about the burden of marriage and motherhood). The oddness of this performance becomes especially evident when contrasted with other characters, most of whom are rendered seriously. But the presence of some over-the-top minor characters (Mrs. Mingott, Aunt March, Parrot) keeps Meg from completely mismatching with the otherwise coherent portrait of the March family.
Amy, the “spoiled brat,” is portrayed by Carmen Zilles with gusto similar to Hamill’s, but with more likability. Gentle Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu) is written, as in the novel, as practically a saint. And then of course there is Jo, the second sister, the tomboy, the character inspired by Alcott herself. Kristolyn Lloyd does an incredible job bringing this beloved character to life. Quick-witted, humorous and feisty, Jo parades about the stage in men’s attire for the majority of the play (costumes are by Valérie Thérèse Bart). She occasionally throws on a mustache even when not rehearsing for the sisters' at-home theatricals, and drives her entire family insane with her sharp tongue and snappy temper.
The play is framed by Jo writing about her life, dedicating her novel to Beth. The memory play structure justifies the broad choices made by the actors, as directed by Sarna Lapine: the caricature of a heterosexual relationship in the romance of Meg and Brooks (Michael Crane), Amy’s obnoxious obsession with next-door-neighbor Laurie (Nate Mann), and Beth’s "canonization." The two-level set by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams puts Jo’s writing desk and Beth’s bed on opposite sides of the upper level, leaving the first floor more flexible for transitions.
Jo’s search for her own path as a sister, friend, woman and writer becomes the central theme of Hamill’s Little Women. A queer teenager's coming of age story, it manages to be relevant without taking too many liberties with the 19th-century novel—until it drops Alcott’s plot midway through (spoiler alert). It was Hamill's goal to make sure that young people coming to terms with their sexuality and gender identity see themselves reflected in classical literature; hence, in this Little Women Jo neither marries a man nor abandons her writing, offering the audience an alternative, modern ending for this iconic character.
(Little Women plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, through June 29, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 15 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $82 - $102 and are available at primarystages.org or by calling 212-352-3101. For more information visit cherrylanetheatre.org.)
Little Women is by Kate Hamill, based on a book by Louisa May Alcott. Directed by Sarna Lapine. Produced by Primary Stages in association with Jamie deRoy. Set Design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. Costume Design by Valérie Thérèse Bart. Lighting Design by Paul Whitaker. Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg. Music by Deborah Abramson.
The cast is Paola Sanchez Abreu, Michael Crane, Kate Hamill, Ellen Harvey, John Lenartz, Kristolyn Lloyd, Nate Mann, Maria Elena Ramirez, and Carmen Zilles.