Review of Primary Stages' Little Women at the Cherry Lane Theatre

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    June 4, 2019
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    Published in 1868, Little Women was a story of four young women who each sought her own path when this country was being ripped apart by war. Mr. March was called to duty, so the March women were on their own. Two of them had jobs: Meg (Kate Hamill) as a tutor and Jo (Kristolyn Lloyd) as an aide to their father's sister, Aunt March (Maria Elena Ramirez​). Amy (Carmen Zilles) still attended school and Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu) stayed at home with the matriarch, Marmie (Maria Elena Ramirez) by her own choice.

    For the March family, survival was the deal, and it was not a laughing matter. They were what was called the "Genteel poor". People of few means but possessed of great moral bearing. These folks didn't even own a horse. They walked. They made their own clothes. They conserved and recycled. I am guessing that the daily life rolls out like a tapestry in the book - which I read in 7th grade I think. But in a play we are looking for that pesky inciting incident. The key that will tell us what is at stake and who is lined up against whom.

    There is none of that dramatic structure here in this Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The one driving force is Jo's desire to be a writer of great novels. But she is her own foe, and the duelling is within herself. As if to accentuate Jo's dilemma, she is dressed in men's clothing for most of the time. Mention is only made of this when her sisters are afraid Jo might ruin a social event by her sartorial taste. This would have been a full blown scandal in the 19th century, so this choice is ill fitting.

    The lack of dramatic arc also prevents these fine actors from shining. There is little or no inventive direction as there was in Pride and Prejudice in 2017. Every time Ellen Harvey appears, the stage brightens considerably, however. The singular scene that crackles is the one in which Michael Crane plays a parrot. He is brilliant.

    As she brought this 19th century story to life in the 21st century, Hamill has decided to make it relevant with a capital "R". In her program note, Hamill writes that she was interested in Jo and Laurie in particular because they were not "entirely comfortable within their given gender roles". Funny, I never thought Laurie was uncomfortable being a man. I thought Jo was frustrated being a woman because of the social limitations that came with it. To define their discomfort as being one wrapped around gender roles feels a bit far-fetched. Like shining a spotlight where none is needed. And in case the female dilemma is not clear enough, Hamill has written a monologue for Meg, overwhelmed by mothering two babies, that sounds as though it was lifted from a feminist manifesto.

    These sisters are tied to one another whether they like it or not. They are choosing their destinies according to their own hearts desires and they are headed in completely different directions. The connecting thread will be stretched to its utmost, but never broken. And no one ends up where they thought they would. Radical for the 19th century reader.

    In this production, the ties that bind are loose. Just as this play is loosely based on the novel. So loose that Jo's trip to New York (on her own) and her encounter with Professor Bhaer - a man at least 20 years her senior, to whom she becomes engaged - is eliminated. In the novel, Alcott's choice of partner for Jo vindicated Jo's desire to find a partner with a feminist spirit. Jo did not give up her independence. She learned interdependence.

    In this production Jo is left to tell the family tale, and do it alone. I am not certain how that is a preferable choice.

    (Photo by James Leynse)

    "From the opening moments of the play, directed by Sarna Lapine and presented by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theater, Kristolyn Lloyd makes a charming and entirely sympathetic Jo. Nate Mann, in a lovely New York stage debut, gives her the ideal companion in his awkward, dryly funny Laurie."
    Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times

    "Kate Hamill’s crowd-pleasing stage version of Little Women at Primary Stages reimagines Louisa May Alcott's beloved 19th-century coming-of-age tale through a modern lens. They may wear modest period costumes (by Valérie Thérèse Bart) and talk about the raging Civil War, but the four March sisters grapple with many of the same issues young women do today as they try to find their way in life and love within strict constraints of gender and class."
    Raven Snook for Time Out New York

    "Over the last decade, actress-playwright Kate Hamill has devoted herself to spiky reworkings of classic 18th-century novels like “Vanity Fair” and “Sense and Sensibility” — seen through a deliberately contemporary lens and often reserving a plum role for herself in the process. Her new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which opened Tuesday in a Primary Stages production at Cherry Lane Theatre, shows a similar flair for turning a doorstop of a novel into a relatively fleet two-hour theatrical entertainment (with intermission)."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap