Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Little Women
Jungle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


Isabella Star LaBlanc, Christina Baldwin,
Christine Weber, Megan Burns and C. Michael Menge

Photo by Rich Ryan
Little Women is a fresh adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, commissioned by the Jungle Theater to lead off its 2018-2019 season. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of the novel—or, part one of it. Part two was published one year later, in 1869, and the two parts were afterwards combined to form the completed work known to readers today. The current stage version, by playwright Kate Hamill, draws only from the narrative included in part one, so this can fittingly be called a sesquicentennial production. Since its first appearance, "Little Women" has never been out of print, and it has become a cornerstone of the body of "coming of age" literature.

Little Women is the story of the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—who display strikingly different personalities and approaches as they step over the threshold from childhood into adulthood, in the context of hard times both as a family and a nation. The setting is the Civil War, with the girls' father serving on the battlefields, leaving the family with constant worries about his safety, and financially hard-pressed. What really makes this saga so enduring is the spirit of its primary voice, Jo, who is unwilling to accept convention, looking for life beyond the bounds of her community, including the restriction on what a girl—or woman—may and may not do. It is Jo who harbors dreams of a life unlike any known before.

It falls on the sisters' mother, who they call Marmie, to hold the family together in body and spirit, with the aid of feisty housekeeper Hannah. Meg and Jo have both left their education behind to earn much-needed money: Meg tutors the children of a well-off family, and Jo attends to wealthy but cantankerous Aunt March, who keeps Jo under her thumb with the promise of a longed-for European trip. Beth is in frail health; that and her extreme timidity keep her at home, but her radiant goodness draws everyone to her. The youngest, Amy (Megan Burns), still in school, is driven by vanity, a desire to be popular, and competition with her sisters, in particular with Jo, who though profoundly different than Amy, shares her independent spirit.

The play unspools (as does the novel) from Jo's perspective. The work's alter ego for Alcott, Jo looks beyond the roles allowed her as a female, expressed succinctly in the line "If I were a boy, people would be more concerned about what I could do than with what I should do. Jo longs to have adventures out in the world, longings expressed in her writing. These include fanciful plays with callous, mustachioed villains, dashing heroes, and helpless damsels, which she directs and enacts with her sisters in their attic, and a novel she furtively works on in fits and starts. When a boy named Laurie comes to live with his grandfather next door to the March family, a special friendship quickly forms between him and Jo. Laurie (his given name being Theodore Laurence) and Jo are both called by names that are gender neutral, likely not a coincidence given Alcott's attention to Jo's insistence on breaking through gender barriers. In this retelling, Hamill particularly emphasizes this aspect of Little Women, giving Jo repeated opportunities to address those issues, and suggesting that her intense views on gender identity may extend to her choice in romantic attachments.

The play takes on a tone of assertive feminism, most notably in its forceful depiction of Jo, but also imbues the other March women with their own brand of strength. Meg, who has met the expectations of young women to seek a good husband, serve him well, and be devoted to her children, makes the most of an opportunity to burst out in protest against the ceaseless labors demanded of mothers and wives. Amy may not appear a feminist, as she trades in girlish whims and shameless flirtations, but she sees how to use those tools available to nineteenth century woman to achieve what she wants in life. Reclusive Beth summons the strength to face daunting opponents and speak out on behalf of others; even Marmie proves her mettle as the backbone of her family. Over time we see the progression of life among these four young women, ending well short of the novel, which goes on to chronicle Jo's life apart from the family, with Jo's potential on the cusp of its realization.

The women in this cast are a dream. C. Michael Menge plays Jo and appropriately makes the strongest impression, creating a portrait of this young woman determined to blaze a new trail, willing to make unconventional decisions and question the rules for women in her society. Menge shows us Jo's sturdy will but also the difficulty she has in being true to her convictions. As spoiled and frivolous Amy, Megan Burns gives another in a string of terrific performances (The Wolves, Peter and the Starcatcher) giving full force to Amy's fluttery form of cunning intelligence, while drawing out the comic nature of the character.

Isabella Star LaBlanc (another Wolves alum) gives a heartbreaking performance as Beth, the soul of the March family who demonstrates that courage can be a quiet thing. Christine Weber portrays Meg with just tone of resigned acceptance of the road she must travel, and one spectacular declaration of revolt. Christina Baldwin, as Marmie, projects the requisite warmth and steadiness, the foundation on whom the four sisters depend. Wendy Lehr delivers her patented feisty oldster shtick in three variations: loving, as housekeeper Hanna, iron-fisted as Aunt March, and clueless as Meg's employer, Mrs. Mingott.

Of the men in Little Women, only Michael Hannah, as Laurie, stands out, but his is the only role with great substance. Unlike other portrayals of the character, Hannah starts off showing Laurie's insecurities and restlessness, both with himself and with the expectations of a male moving from boyhood to adulthood. He thus becomes more of a fellow seeker to Jo, rather than an object of her affections, even as his own feelings play out differently. As Mr. Brooks, Laurie's tutor who seeks Meg's romantic attention, James Rodriguez provides the requisite degree of stuffiness. Jim Lichtsheidl conveys the air of propriety as Laurie's grandfather and dishes out ruthless candor as Mr. Dashwood, a publisher Jo hopes will accept her work. Tyson Forbes, a wonderful actor, has little do as a musician who wanders through at intervals to establish atmosphere, and the mostly nonverbal role of Mr. March.

Sara Rasumussen's direction allows the dynamics among the March sisters to emerge naturally, as we see them interface with one another. Between the episodes depicted, the characters enact silent montages of movement through time and space, creating a sense of the ongoing flow of life in which the episodes to which we are privy are tethered. The physical production is lovely, with Rebecca Bernstein's costumes just right for both the setting and the temperament of each character. Chelsea M. Warren's set design is modest in scale, but with enough detail to create the illusion of the 1860s Massachusetts setting. The lighting design by Marcus Dilliard, sound design by Sean Healey, and incidental music composed by Robert Elhai all contribute to the tone of a burnished tale that takes flight from its 150-year-old time and place to find meaning in 2018.

Jungle Theater has come through with another winning production that displays excellence in the theater arts, moves the heart, and stimulates its audience to consider where those March girls fit in the continuum of breaking down barriers between the life choices open to women—and men—in today's world.

Little Women, through October 21, 2018, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $35.00 - $50.00. Seniors (60+) and students, through undergraduates, $5.00 discount. For tickets call 612-822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.

Writer: Kate Hamill, adapted from the novel by Louisa May Alcott; Director: Sarah Rasumussen; Set Design: Chelsea M. Warren; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Lighting Design: Marcus Dillard; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Wig and Hair Design: Mary Capers; Music: Robert Elhai; Movement: Jim Lichtscheidl; Dramaturg: Kristin Leahey; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Brent Anderson; Production Manager: Matthew Early.

Cast: Christina Baldwin (Marmie), Megan Burns (Amy March), Tyson Forbes (Musician), Michael Hanna (Theodore "Laurie" Laurence), Isabella Star LaBlanc (Amy March), Wendy Lehr (Hannah/Mrs. Mingott/Aunt March), Jim Lichtscheidl (Mr. Laurence/Mr. Dashwood), C. Michael Menge (Jo March), James Rodriguez (John Brooks), Christine Weber (Meg March).


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