Dallas — Playwright Kate Hamill’s highly enjoyable romp through the classics of 19th-century literature (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair) continues with a laugh-filled and tough-minded adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, running through March 1 on the Dallas Theater Center’s Kalita Humphreys stage.
This is a Little Women for the 21st century. For generations of American girls and women, Alcott’s Josephine March always felt as real as anyone they knew. Torch held high, she lit the way for us through a desert of teen romances and too-cute girl characters. And here she is again, Jo in all her ungainly glory, yet feeling fresh and expanded in ways that link her spirit to us and our times. “I don’t want to live a small, well-behaved life,” Hamill’s Jo March declares. “I want to shake the world!” We can almost see Alcott pinning that button onto her collar.
Hamill’s riff, full of grit and humor, honors the original story line: the family warmth, the faraway war, the sisterly quarrels and hugs, the dreams of growing up, the experience of loss and death. Yet she tweaks and tinkers with the story in ways Alcott herself would have enjoyed. The Civil War and its politics feel closer; the wounds in the March household last longer. Jo’s pants-wearing and passionate flight from the limits of womanly life is taken more seriously, making room for a gender-bending slant that’s left open in the end. And though Alcott’s imagined sisters (based on her own) were always engagingly honest in what they said to each other, Hamill finds room for some even bigger, more complex conversations among them.
Director Sarah Rasmussen (of DTC’s 2016 Sense and Sensibility, a Hamill re-do of the Austen novel) blends a cast that includes both members of the Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company and plenty of new faces for DTC, including many actors who’ve worked with Rasmussen in theaters across the country. In fact, Rasmussen directed Hamill’s Little Women in 2018 at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, and her ease with the material shines through in a tone-perfect, genuine way with the wide emotional arc of the play.
Adding to our rich experience are an evocative score by composer Robert Elhai; fascinating, even emo-responsive lights (pulsing sconces, harshly slanting daylight) from Marcus Dilliard; intriguing, and at moments jarring, sound from Sean Healey; a warm hearth-centered set design by Wilson Chin; smart and character-revealing period costumes from Moria Sine Clinton; and fluid staging (it took a village, I’m sure, including movement coach Joel Ferrell) that makes the best use of the Kalita Humphreys’ turntable stage I’ve seen in a while.
Pearl Rhein’s charismatic portrayal of funny, self-defended, angrier-than-she-knows Jo is a gift to the play and the audience. Upright and mustachioed, she stalks their homemade stage as bad-guy Rodrigo (in a play she’s written), terrorizing young ladies, ready for a sword fight or a swaggering speech. Dressed for a dance, Jo is less secure. “I’m an awkward old fellow,” she jokes to her new friend Laurie (Louis Reyes McWilliams) when he suggests a polka. But her uncertainties go deeper than jokes and play-acting. “Amy’s a lady and Meg’s a mother—and I don’t know what I am.”
Jo’s much-loved “conscience” is her sister Beth (Maggie Thompson), shy with outsiders but a young woman whose wisdom and character are stronger than her body. Calm and intelligent older sister Meg (Jennie Greenberry) is ready for love and marriage in a way that sets alarm bells ringing for Jo; she’s appalled when Meg finds love almost instantly with Alex Organ’s awkward but loving John Brooks, Laurie’s tutor. And littlest sister Amy (Lilli Hokama) is a pre-teen already adding up the economic equations of their world (marry well = good life). She makes Jo roll her eyes and jot down Amy’s many “vocabablary” mistakes in her notebook. It’s a running gag, but their world views will clash in startlingly serious ways.
McWilliams is endearing as the boyish Laurie, heart-tugging and vulnerable in his despair that Jo won’t be more than his best friend. Sally Nystuen Vahle is the loving busybody Hannah, who looks after all of them in more ways than they know. Mike Sears is stately as Laurie’s grandfather and smarmy as publisher Dashwood, who might “help” young Jo get her stories into print. Liz Mikel is a caring but gruffly worried Marmie, though in a role that’s been hugely shortened, perhaps to make space for the sisters’ stories. And Andrew Crowe (he’s a strolling violinist too) plays father March, a wordless but loved presence, and a reminder of the costs of war.
Three of Hamill’s “tweaks” feel especially significant.
Jo’s quarrels with little Amy take on a bitter edge as they grow older. Amy, who tells Jo she’s “stupid” to reject Laurie’s proposal, has a real-politik view of marriage and money. “You don’t get to make up the rules,” she tells Jo, who lives for independence and freedom. And while we may not be on Amy’s side, we can’t say she’s wrong about the way the world works.
Meg and John’s courtship and wedding are pure spots of joy in the story — which makes Meg’s panicked, weeping run back to her childhood home all the more jarring. Again, Hamill expands a piece of the original story and gives it a modern voice. Meg, alone in her house with twin babies and no Hannah, breaks down over the lonely work of motherhood and a husband she thinks doesn’t see the problem. Greenberry works up to a line so brutally true that every woman in the audience (and plenty of men) roared in sympathy.
And there’s the ending. Hamill yells “cut” at a dramatic point that yes, works — but nonetheless will feel abrupt to readers who know the books by heart. Is it a signal that the world of the “little women” is ending? That Jo and her sisters (like the rest of us) are left with an open-ended plot line heading toward the who-knows-where of adulthood? Is it a way to leave all choices in play, letting us guess/wonder/hope what might happen? One thing’s for sure: we know Jo will write the stories of their future, and tell the stories of their past:
“Once upon a time there was a family…and even if the world has split apart, together they felt whole.”