If Aaron Sorkin can rework To Kill a Mockingbird to better suit the current cultural and political moment (even over the strenuous legal objections of the Harper Lee estate), why shouldn’t actress/playwright Kate Hamill do the same with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (which is, after all, in the public domain and therefore up for grabs)?
Over the past few years, Hamill has become one of the busiest theater practitioners in New York, thanks to her ongoing series of freewheeling stage adaptations of literary classics, including Sense and Sensibility (which received a brilliant original production by the ensemble company Bedlam and is now being produced around the country), Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, Dracula (to be produced by Classic Stage next season) and Little Women, which is currently receiving its New York premiere in an Off-Broadway production by Primary Stages (which produced Pride and Prejudice last year).
As is usually the case, Hamill herself is part of the cast. But of the four March sisters, rather than choosing the headstrong Jo, the spoiled Amy or the sickly Beth, Hamill is playing Meg, the eldest, least memorable and least interesting of the quartet. That being said, she does add a nervous breakdown scene for Meg.
The production is directed by Sarna Lapine (who is the niece of director-playwright James Lapine and directed the 2017 Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George with Jake Gyllenhaal) with a nine-member, ethnically diverse cast including Kristolyn Lloyd (Dear Evan Hansen) as Jo, Nate Mann (a recent Juilliard grad) as boy next door Laurie, Maria Elena Ramirez (Bloody Andrew Jackson) as both Marmie and Aunt March, Carmen Zilles (Small Mouth Sounds) as Amy, and Paola Sanchez Abreu (The Wolves) as Beth.
It incorporates an original score of piano music (which is fitting given Beth’s attraction to the instrument) by Deborah Abramson, period costumes by Valerie Therese Bart and a skeletal two-story set (including an upstairs solitary space where Jo can write) by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. Lloyd makes for a striking and self-assured Jo, and her moments alone with Mann’s sensitive Laurie are quite beautiful.
I must confess that I have never actually read Alcott’s classic 1868 two-volume novel. I was interested in finally reading it before attending this production – and then I realized it is approximately 750 pages in length, so I settled instead for watching the recent BBC/PBS three-hour miniseries version (with Angela Lansbury and Emily Watson) and revisiting the cast album of the underappreciated 2005 Broadway musical adaptation (with Sutton Foster and Maureen McGovern).
In any case, a program note makes it expressly clear that Hamill has taken liberties with the original work. In addition to shifting around the chronology of key events (including Amy’s burning of Jo’s manuscript and Beth’s death), Hamill has written a #MeToo-oriented Little Women, in which a book publisher threatens to underpay Jo because she is a woman and even gropes her, and Meg’s husband does not appreciate her hard work taking care of their children and home. Hamill also expands upon Jo how she feels constrained by and uncomfortable with traditional gender roles. The same goes for Laurie, who is suggested to be gay (even though he still marries Amy at the end). Professor Bauer (Jo’s eventual husband) is excised entirely.
While one can appreciate Hamill’s desire to dust off Little Women and make it her own, her changes tend to be heavy-handed, self-referential and didactic in nature. And though Little Women is more sobering in tone than most of Hamill’s prior adaptations, she does uncomfortably stretch for humor at times, including having an actor play Aunt March’s parrot. Some of the scenes also drag, especially towards the end. Nevertheless, this adaptation (which is certainly accessible, easy to follow and condensed) may have a bright future with schools and youth-oriented theater companies.