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Little Women

Theatre Review by Jose Solís - June 6, 2019

Kate Hamill's adaptation of Little Women, which opened on June 4th at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is a sublime example of how to make 19th century works relevant to modern audiences. Unlike recent adaptations, which have merely transposed Louisa May Alcott's characters to different eras, but retained the book's whiteness and outdated "all-American girl" values, Hamill understands that Alcott's core beliefs, if not her specifics, were invitations not to tea parties and cotillions, but to invite all women to revolution.

A color-conscious cast highlights elements of the characters that have remained unseen in other adaptations. Matriarch Marmie (Maria Elena Ramírez) rules over her household with compassion and concern for the slow pace with which things are changing for her daughters. Eldest sister Meg (played by Hamill) often appears resigned when it comes to following what's expected of her, but when her character realizes she might not be ready for motherhood, Hamill creates a heartbreaking portrait of postpartum depression.

The often saintly Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu) is no longer depicted as a holy being, but as a woman seeking enlightenment through goodness. If Alcott had a chance to see Hamill's adaptation, she might be inspired to let the character live long enough to become a preacher. In fact, it's telling that the play ends at the moment it does, not the usual "the remaining ones lived happily ever after," but at the crossroads the family is left in after losing the being they call their conscience. Hamill knows that change often comes from profound pain.

With the flirty Amy (Carmen Zilles) the playwright revels in the way in which women don't need to compromise their sexual desire with what society wants them to aim their desire to. In other adaptations, Amy is seen a bit of a nuisance, an immature flirt who needs a lot of growing up to do. In Hamill's adaptation, it's clear that desire is the path she has chosen for her personal growth.

To call a production of Little Women "feminist" would seem redundant, if it wasn't for the fact that this version actually takes into account that having a play center on women doesn't necessarily make it feminist. But in the Primary Stages production, extreme care has been given to who gets to decide the world and costumes the characters live in. Sarna Lapine directs with grace and efficiency, the costumes by Valérie Thérèse Bart for once look like garments women would want to be in, while Deborah Abramson's lush music highlights the characters' emotions without once speaking for them.

But of course, the success of every Little Women comes down to its Jo. The no-nonsense March sister who her father calls "son" in the book, and who is referred to by her neighbor Laurie (Nate Mann) as "dear fellow" in the play, is brought to vibrant life by Krystolyn Lloyd (if you've been counting, most of the March women are played by actresses of color). Lloyd allows the character to bask in her queerness, what characters called "quirks" in the book.

This Jo commands the stage with equal measures of fire and kindness, and seeing a black woman in the part can't help but remind us of how much our society expects from women of color, how much rescuing they're supposed to be doing, and how much we still owe them before pretending we live in an equal society. If Alcott was one of the pioneers of the revolution 150 years ago, Hamill and Co. pay her work homage, but remind us there is much, much further to go.

Little Women
Through June 29
Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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