Fort Worth — It feels like the right time, in many ways, to get to know Jo March again. Louisa May Alcott’s greatest creation, Little Women, originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, veritably bursts at the seams with well-drawn, nuanced characters, the vast majority of them female. But it’s the rebellious, independent, “boyish” Jo (Josephine only to her enemies) who seems to leap, fully-formed, off the page and into the present day. And in Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s production of this adaptation of Little Women, Jo is presented to the audience exactly as she should be: as a thoroughly nontraditional, modern woman, whose daily concerns (balancing relationships, career, independence) feel as relevant to a modern audience as they must have to the original readers of Alcott’s novel.
The “little women” in question are the four March sisters—practical Meg (Laura Smith), fiery Jo (Madeline Ruth), sweet Beth (Samantha Snow), and proper Amy (Emmie Gelat), who squabble, and playact, and dream of their futures while under the shadow of the ongoing Civil War. And they are little not in stature, but in the Dickensian sense—on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. The older girls work outside the home—Meg as a governess and Jo as the decidedly unwilling companion to her stern, critical Aunt March (Cynthia Matthews)—to support their family while their father serves as a chaplain in the war. As the play begins, the girls’ main sources of entertainment are participating (some more willingly than others) in staging amateur productions of Jo’s writings and spying on their neighbor, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Jake Slaughter). But as the action continues, the contained little household expands to let more of the world in and to include new friends, lovers (both potential and actual), and new challenges.
Madeline Ruth as Jo excels, especially in the physicality of the character—bouncing on her toes in excitement, flinging herself onto sofas in despair or rage, galumphing across the stage with a gawky near-grace—Jo is every bit herself. Impatient and dramatic, impulsive and uncompromising, Ruth offers a rounded picture of Jo’s good qualities as well as the bad. Samantha Snow’s Beth embodies the character’s shy sweetness without ever feeling saccharine, and the character’s most poignant scenes (non-spoilers for a 149 year old book?) remain as affecting as ever in Snow’s capable hands. And Emmie Gelat tackles a challenging character arc—going from a petulant twelve year old to a sophisticated and capable young woman—with aplomb. The cast as a whole performs ably, though the accent work for some characters can be a little shaky at times, and volume was occasionally an issue.
The adaptation (by Emma Reeves, an award-winning writer for both stage and screen) moves at a good clip, condensing the action ably and conveying Alcott’s narration via the characters themselves. The addition of contemporary music from the 1800s, performed by the cast, adds to the atmosphere of the production. While all of the cast members perform these numbers well, special mention must be made of Samantha Snow and Christian Teague (Ned Moffat/Professor Bhaer), whose voices are both splendid.
The set, designed by co-director Jason Morgan, makes excellent use of the space. The stage is split, with one side representing the March home, while the other stands in as other locations as necessary. The use of platforms to elevate portions of the stage is a useful practical touch, while also adding visual interest to the set, as does the jewel-toned wallpaper and other period touches. Lauren Morgan, the other half of this directing duo, should be commended for her costume design as well as her direction, which ably differentiates between the shabby gentility of the March girls and the opulence of their wealthier peers (a dress worn by Amy in Europe is a particular standout).
Though somewhat hampered by the necessities of the time, Little Women’s heroines consistently shun safe, practical choices and boldly follow their hearts.