David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member
New York, NY - “I can’t abide seeing a body stuffed into the wrong role.” – Jo to Meg in “Little Women”
Kate Hamill’s retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” plays at Primary Stages at an auspicious time. Amid unprecedented national and political division, issues of gender identity, gender equality, and gender protection continue to be critically important. Individual rights and freedoms are eroding at a dangerous pace. Religious rights are becoming more significant than the rights of individuals to make choices about their bodies, their relationships, and about their futures.
Jo (a spirited and persuasive Kristolyn Lloyd) and Beth (a fragile and shy Paola Sanchez Abreu) are two of the four March sisters who live with their mother Marmie (a dedicated and nurturing Maria Elena Ramirez) and the family’s longtime housekeeper Hannah (a strident yet compassionate Ellen Harvey) in the suburbs. Their father Robert March (a hapless and lethargic John Lenartz) has been wounded in the Civil War. Jo feels that she is “a body stuffed into the wrong role” and Beth lovingly support’s her sister’s quest to “be what she wants to be.” Jo’s quest is at the core of “Little Women” and her journey includes her struggles with her less than supportive sisters Meg (a dedicated and romantic Kate Hamill) and Amy (an opinionated and spoiled Carmen Zilles) and her friendship with Laurie (a thoughtful and caring Nate Mann) the boy next door who is also struggling with his “mis-stuffed” body.
Kate Hamill gives her characters unique and authentic conflicts which the actors successfully employ to develop their characters with believability and develop the plot. Themes and conflicts counterpoint one another and the comparison and contrast of these provide enough dramatic progression. However, these are Alcott’s themes really and Kate Hamill has not seduced them into the present with enough relevance and energy to make this “Little Women” anything new or compelling. Even Laurie’s compelling arguments about gender identity – imagining a world where there is neither “boy” or “girl” nor “gentleman” or “lady” – fade into nagging normalcy.
There are only so many times an audience can be challenged to accept that individuals – particularly girls and women – need the space to be and do what they want to be and do, and struggle with obstacles of “reality” that suppress “fantasy.” No one wants to “pander to the wealthy” or have emotional strength confused with “hysteria.” But Kate Hamill’s “Little Women” does not seem to know how to develop these conflicts into anything transformative. Unfortunately, there are times this production seems like the effort of a substantial community theater and disappoints more than it succeeds.
I know that Kate Hamill considered these issues carefully; however, for this critic the period costumes play against making this retelling of “Little Women” relevant. Additionally, once the conventions of set locations are evident to the audience, there is no need for all the “fussing” with curtains and doors. These constant distractions diminish the impact of the work of the actors. These concerns, along with Sarna Lapine’s lugubrious direction, make for a slow-moving production so unlike Ms. Hamill’s previous retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” at Primary Stages.
No one should abide being a body stuffed into the wrong role. One wishes that Kate Hamill’s “Little Women” provided the kind of catharsis to bring that important tension to some meaningful resolution.
The cast of “Little Women” includes Paola Sanchez Abreu, Michael Crane, Kate Hamill, Ellen Harvey, John Lenartz, Kristolyn Lloyd, Nate Mann, Maria Elena Ramirez, and Carmen Zilles.
“Little Women” features scenic design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, costume design by Valérie Thérèse Bart, lighting design by Paul Whitaker, and sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Deborah Abramson serves as the composer.
Primary Stage’s “Little Women” runs at Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street) through Saturday June 29, 2019. For the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, please visit https://primarystages.org/. Running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes with one intermission.
Photo: Kristolyn Lloyd and Paola Sanchez Abreu in “Little Women.” Credit: James Leynse.