When the best thing about a stage version of Little Women is the evil parrot, something has gone wrong.
I understand the impetus to bring the novel’s characters to the stage—the strong sense of sisterhood, the affection for family, and the unusually proto-feminist character Jo March who is trying to find a place in society where she doesn’t quite fit in. Jo’s voice and frustrations with the limitations society puts on women still resonates with us today. I was eager for a modern take on this. However, Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Little Women strangely holds onto the hoary, sentimental aspects of the novel and then tries to hybridize them with an incoherent, contemporary vision of Jo. The material, it turns out, is quite fragile and breaks under the weight of what Hamill tries to do.
With so many bits of plot to get through, the two-hour play is forced to reduce these complex women to simplistic, flat renderings. The message about identity, self-worth, and finding your voice gets garbled. Repetition acts less as motif and more as filler. Yet we get far too much sword-play. The fast-paced production is stilted and awkward and never quite finds a tone that suits its modern thinking or its traditional setting.
There are four March sisters who are as different as can be. Mothering Meg (playwright Hamill) quickly falls for her wealthy neighbor’s tutor Mr. Brooks (Michael Crane) and starts a family. Jo (Kristolyn Lloyd), the next oldest, befriends that wealthy neighbor, Laurie (Nate Mann). They are both socially awkward and he appreciates her candor when he finds most women baffling. Laurie professes a nervousness around the world of men wishing himself perhaps more of a woman’s path while Jo wants the freedom Laurie has. At home remain Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu), the quiet, skittish “conscience” of the family, followed by Amy (Carmen Zilles), the spoiled, vain youngest who loves Laurie from their first meeting.
The play concerns itself with mostly with Jo. As a woman, she cannot live the life of a man by going to college, making her fortune, traveling to Europe, or being independent. She writes fictional adventure stories and loses herself in her imagination. But she also fears growing up and things changing between her sisters and the world. This worry is mixed together with her gender identity. She wishes she was a man but perhaps beyond simply the rights and opportunities it might offer her.
Much like in the novel, Jo chops her hair off, wears only pants, and leans into an idea of masculinity, but she is also intellectually infantilized in the production. Her voracious reading and knowledge take a backseat in the play where she is portrayed as wanting to physically romp with her sisters as they did as children in imagined sword-fights and engage in amateur theatrics well beyond the age you would expect this. She holds tight to childish things as her older and younger sisters clearly age out of them.
In the novel she expresses a desire for things to stay the same—as in a nostalgia for happier, simpler days of childhood when there was more flexibility around expectations for a young girl than as an adult woman. But the play frames her as not progressive or ahead of her time as much as detached from reality—less charging ahead flawed hero and more lost, confused soul. In the book, she stumbles around as well but eventually she finds her path. But her blundering adventures in the novel come with a confidence and self-assuredness missing here.
In the play, the negative voices and criticisms of Jo loom larger. Everyone around her tuts her ideas, draws attention to the mistakes she has made, and wants to bend her to their will (including Laurie). Frankly, Jo does not seem to have much of a clear idea herself what she wants beyond some invention of an imaginary future she has not thought through.
While she should be able to upend convention, live as she chooses, and wear what she likes, the play leaves us with a confusing message. Jo eventually changes her approach to life to suit Beth’s vision of who she should be—a non-fiction chronicler of this family rather than a fiction writer of foreign adventure tales. Who Jo wants to be or what she wants to do gets supplanted by Beth’s wishes. We do not get to celebrate Jo’s liberation or choices because they no longer feel they are her own.
The cast, many of whom have proven themselves in other works, are stiff and awkward here. They wear their characterizations unnaturally. Hamill hams up certain Meg moments to strained laughs. Beth is described in the script as “possibly on the autism spectrum” but its unlikely the audience would intuit this from what little is communicated about her via Sanchez Abreu’s quiet performance. Lloyd does her best “old chap” brotherly, rough-housing routine with Mann but she wears masculinity like one of Jo’s swashbuckling characters. It hangs as performance and not resting deeper as her identity. She does bear Jo’s wounds well and the hurt she feels at being misunderstood by those around her is palpable. Zilles is quite varied with her catty, but eventually practical Amy.
And then there is the parrot. Michael Crane is an astoundingly good parrot with echoing refrains of the last phrase spoken, poking and preening his feathers, and pacing rhythmically back and forth. His performance was so precise and clear and wildly not the point of the play.
The sudden silliness of one of the actors playing a bird in the midst of an otherwise naturalistic play speaks to the jarring tone of the production overall. Director Sarna Lapine races through the material at times so it comes across as farce which gets tripped up by the play’s sticky earnestness (and a treacly score). The play is reverential in honoring the time of the novel (and almost adding a more conservative gloss than the novel itself had) which then rests uneasy against the modern comedy and social commentary.
While Hamill has successfully updated a number of classic novels for the stage and has brought a keen eye to putting historic works in conversation with the moment, Little Women surprisingly proves too slippery for the 21st century.