By Paige Allen
June 30, 2019
“I’ll never be a woman like you,” the “little woman” dressed in trousers with her hair cut short says to her mother. If Kate Hamill’s new adaptation of Little Women were personified, it would look like this, declaring emphatically to the previous generations of Little Women, “I’ll never be a woman like you.”
Currently at Primary Stages, Hamill’s spin on Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, directed by Sarna Lapine, is a testament to Hamill’s trademark ability to honor classic source material while infusing—even, at times, radicalizing—it with a progressive 21st-century perspective.
Hamill’s play begins in the homey, familial space you would expect from Little Women as we are introduced to the March family, Marmie (Mary Bacon in the performance I attended) and her four girls: the capable Meg (played by Hamill herself), the brash Jo (Kristolyn Lloyd), the caring Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu), and the childish Amy (Carmen Zilles). The mood of the first act is charming and sentimental as the sisters forge a friendship with their neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Nate Mann) and Meg falls for his tutor, John Brooks (Michael Crane). Conflict arises when news arrives that the girls’ father (John Lenartz), who is fighting in the Civil War, is wounded and Beth contracts scarlet fever, but Act One ends with Beth’s recovery and their father’s return home.
In Act Two, however, the girls and the play mature as the conflicts become more complicated. Jo finishes her novel and visits a publisher only to have him dismiss it, recommending she bring a man along next time if she wishes to succeed. The jealousy between Jo and Amy boils over into hatred when Amy deals Jo a devastating blow, resulting in Jo’s declaration that Amy is no longer her sister.
Purists be warned: this version of Little Women does not end happily, and if you’re expecting Jo to meet the Berliner Professor Bhaer, you’ll be disappointed. Hamill takes some liberties with the order and inclusion of events and endows many of her characters with modern sensibilities, increasing the complexity of the characters and the conflicts they face as the “little women” navigate interpersonal relationships and societal limitations.
Hamill rethinks Meg, normally characterized by her beauty and propriety and depicted as the elegant picture of what a “little woman” should be. Hamill and Lapine treat Meg—both in script and performance—as a comedic girl next door with an unconventional charm. When Meg instructs her sisters to be “ladylike,” she often does so while revealing she is not the picture of propriety herself (for instance, shouting about how ladies should not raise their voices). Any “vanity” she has is played for laughs as her insistence on not wearing her glasses at a dance leaves her stumbling helplessly, and her interactions with Brooks are endearingly awkward.
Meg marries Brooks, “settling down” as a wife and mother as a “little woman” should, but all is not well; a disheveled Meg expresses her exhaustion and anxiety as a young mother and wife expected to sacrifice everything to cook, clean, and keep her family happy. Meg provides a glimpse of what happens to “little women” in this world when they grow up. (It’s worth comparing Hamill’s scene to the original version in Alcott’s novel, in which Meg is reminded of her duty to her husband and told to be the “docile girl” she always was.)
The heart of Hamill’s play, of course, is Jo, the young woman with dreams of becoming a famous writer who would rather wear trousers and a fake “mustachio” than a skirt any day (in fact, costume designer Valérie Thérèse Bart has Jo always in trousers, her skirt worn only on top of them). Alcott’s Jo is a literary icon, a strong woman who refuses to play by the rules. Hamill pushes her Jo further: she rejects not only society’s expectations of a woman but perhaps an identity as a woman altogether.
The question of gender is signaled from the opening of the play when the first pronoun Jo uses to describe herself is “it.” Jo initially introduces herself to Laurie as a “businessman” before correcting herself. She confides in him her wishes to be a boy, for then people would care about her potential, not her shortcomings. Laurie, too, is unhappy with the gender role he is expected to assume, confessing he’d rather be a girl.
As Laurie grows up and becomes a man, Jo’s struggle with her identity as “a rock in a bed of flowers” only increases. When Laurie refers to Jo as an “authoress,” Lloyd’s acting makes it quite clear that Jo does not like the term. When Jo is expected to dress up to visit Aunt March (also Bacon), she wears a jacket instead of a skirt.
This visit with Aunt March may be the most brilliant scene in the play (and not just because of Crane’s exceptional performance as a parrot). Amy smiles and placates Aunt March, and Jo tries to do the same, but when Aunt March insults their father’s efforts to fight slavery and their mother’s aid to poor immigrants, Jo launches into a biting speech about sitting back and acting civil when problems don’t directly affect us, a speech which resonates in today’s context as much as that of the play. The casting of many women of color (including Lloyd as Jo) adds emphasis to Jo’s words as she sarcastically asks why we should care about slaves and immigrants.
The more Jo realizes she cannot be the lady she is expected to be, the more she struggles to envision what the future holds for her. When Jo turns down Laurie’s proposal for marriage, he asks her why she can’t want what any other woman would. Jo immediately responds: “That’s because I’m not….” She hesitates for a moment—a charged pause, filled with the denial she could make—then she says, “I’m not like other women.” As she tells Marmie, she “will never be a woman” like her.
Hamill’s Jo isn’t simply a girl with gumption; she’s a “little woman” who, by the end of the play, may not even identify as a woman.
This reading may seem radical, but much of what Hamill does with Jo is drawn directly from Alcott’s work, only heightened by Hamill’s writing. After all, even in the source text, Laurie refers to Jo as “fellow” and her father calls Jo his “son.”
And so Hamill’s play does not end with Jo getting married to Professor Bhaer, settling down, and having children. It does not end with her having anything substantial successfully published. Those things may happen in the future for Jo, or they may not. Hamill is not interested in telling that part of the story. Instead, thanks to Hamill’s crushing arrangement of events, the play finishes with Jo reeling from several forms of loss, struggling to figure out who she will become and where she can fit into her world while remaining true to herself.
As frustrating as that ending may be for some, I found it liberating. Little Women is a story about becoming who you are. Hamill purposely leaves us with Jo still on that journey, reminding us that we never really stop becoming and giving this version of Jo an open ending to become whoever she may be.
BCS-friendliness rating: 5 out of 5 stars
My ticket for Little Women cost $36 (fees included). Primary Stages does have a student rush system and an under 35 program, and I saw the tickets for maybe a few dollars cheaper on TodayTix as well, so there is the potential of paying even a bit less than that. Almost every day there were tickets still available for the performance that evening or afternoon.
The Cherry Lane Theater is an intimate space, so anywhere you sit will make for a good view (no need to buy the most expensive seats)