SISTER ACT Keyes and Ratcliffe.
Ever since it was published in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been inspiring generation after generation of strong-minded girls to grow into independent women. That emphasis is the tone of a new stage adaptation adapted by Caolan Madden and Mary G. Farrell, directed by Farrell at Providence College (through April 11).
Unlike other adaptations, this one stresses the feminism by putting Alcott (Cat McDonnell) herself on stage. She occasionally and briefly takes a minor role, such as a stooped serving women, but her main function is to be the now-and-then narrator and explainer.
Sometimes that helps, such as when she declares that people should “live deliberately,” in quoted homage to Henry David Thoreau. (Portraits of him and other 19th-century transcendentalists and suffragists, such as Emerson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, are in the background.) And sometimes that doesn’t help but rather interrupts the dramatic momentum or tells something that could better be shown.
There is much to pack in, a challenge for this adaptation to proceed as smoothly as it does, for the most part. There are no less than four March sisters and their mother, after all, in their bustling Massa-chusetts home, their father away as a chaplain in the Civil War. In the tradition of the “pious” children’s books demanded by publishers at the time, as the story mentions, Alcott had each of the sisters struggling with a defect of character: Beth (Erin Fusco) is shy; Meg (Sara Ratcliffe) is vain; Amy (Colleen Burns) is selfish; Jo (Suzanne Keyes) has trouble controlling her temper; and all are under the patient guidance of their mother, Marmee (Julia Tully).
But as in the novel, this is mostly the story of Jo, 15 and next to oldest. Clearly a stand-in for Alcott, she wants very much to be a writer. In the March household there are only everyday incidents for her to draw upon. They take their Christmas breakfast to a poor neighborhood family with six hungry children. She accidentally burns older sister Meg’s tresses with a curling iron. Attractive hair and its emotional significance come up again when Jo sells her lengthy locks so their mother can travel to her hospitalized father.
And then there is their slightly older next-door neighbor, Theodore Laurence (Justin Pimental), called Laurie. He lives with his grandfather, is wealthy, likes their company, and enjoys playing the role of fun-loving older brother. (Squeezed out in the crush of female characters, the never-seen grandfather could have provided some needed tension here, overly concerned as he was about Laurie turning into the impetuous romantic that his disinherited father was.)
But Laurie is plenty to center Jo’s story around. As presented here, they bond as good friends at a dance party. As time goes on, he eventually declares his love to Jo, but she spurns him. As a feminist mission statement, there would have been more mileage in turning him down despite being attracted to him, choosing career over family, but perhaps that would have been too much for Alcott’s readers. Instead, Jo says she doesn’t love him “that way.” She moves to New York, more to spare him her presence than to sell an occasional story, as she does. He distracts himself by going off to Europe.
Filling the romance gap for a while are such things as Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke (Ted Boyce-Smith), falling in love with Jo’s sister Meg, and other distractions. A particularly unfortunate happening is that one of the March sisters contracts tuberculosis, a plot obligation in romantic novels of the period. In consideration of the two or three of you who aren’t familiar with the plot (there have been 14 film versions), I won’t reveal the outcome.
The same with the Laurie/Jo resolution. Does she have a change of heart? Does he? It can be said that when she goes to New York she does attract a suitor, an older man. The gentle German tutor, Prof. Fritz Bhaer (Teddy Myers), is poor but sincere, encouraging Jo to continue her writing career.
A nice touch in this pleasant production is the music, from vocals to piano, fiddle, and pennywhistle, although it sometimes drowns out unmiked lines.