Fast on the high heels of “Kinky Boots” comes another gender-defying play in the Hangar Theatre’s season: playwright Kate Hamill’s re-envisioning of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” running until Aug. 17.
Hamill—former Lansing resident, Ithaca College graduate, and Hangar Next Generation alum—has earned national recognition for her theatrical adaptations of classics, esoecially over the last two years.
Her version of “Little Women” has feisty tomboy Jo (played by Ashley Bufkin) at its center, of course, and for the sake of drama and theme, intensifies the conflict between Jo and her younger sister Amy, the epitome of conventional femininity. Seeking a life of purpose, something beyond the prescribed Kinder und Küche, Jo wants a man’s freedom. She also wants fame and fortune and sees writing sensationalist (pulp) fiction as her ticket forward.
Under Linsey Firman’s direction, Hamill’s interpretation is honored and the beloved classic tale recalled, though these goals may be at odds. But the environment is perfect: Nick Francone’s wooden set (warmed by Deborah Constantine’s lighting) elegantly evokes the March family’s simplicity, offering multiple levels while bringing us intimately into the domestic circle. Don Tindall’s sound opens both acts on a tentative tinkling piano, and Theresa Squire’s costumes are superb—plain and sober as needed, sadly overdone when Amy seeks to impress, and hysterically absurd for the elderly women Jo and Meg must serve.
The actors are all top-notch. As the ever-wise matriarch Marmee, Sarah Chalmers is made for the role, with her soothing voice and sensitive face, etched with grief. Gilbert Cruz effectively covers several male parts: the not-so-gruff wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence; a smarmy publisher; and Father March. As Laurie, the neighbor’s grandson adopted into the March family’s affection and home theatricals, Michael Patrick Trimm is decidedly charming. His easy camaraderie with the boisterous Jo is affectionate, his performance engaging and natural. His Latin tutor Brooks (Sideeq Heard) becomes sweetly tongue-tied as he hesitantly woos eldest sister Meg.
The older women don’t fare too well, but Catherine Weidner delightfully renders them all: the scolding housekeeper Hannah; fatuous matchmaker Mrs. Mingott; and too-cruel Aunt March, who ends up taking agreeable Amy, not belligerent Jo, on the long-promised European tour.
When the first volume of Alcott’s novel appeared in 1868, its subtitle was “Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy” — clearly a coming-of-age tale of four sisters, and all girls who read and cherished it could likely find themselves in one of them. The eldest, kindly Meg, dutifully follows Marmee’s path, marrying and having children. Rosie Yates excels in this role, close to the novel except for her very funny meltdown over her life’s demands.
Sarina Freda’s frail Beth is the stay-at-home peacemaker, with her own doubts and courage. Each sister emerges as a distinct personality, and amidst all the bonding, sisterly hostilities aren’t avoided. Even saintly Beth loses her patience with Jo’s moody, stubborn behavior.
But the major tension is between Jo and Amy and their notions of how to proceed in their lives as women. Sandrinne Edstrom is splendid as the baby sister—selfish, self-pitying, spoiled and ultimately strategic. Her constant malapropisms—e.g., upset about being a piranha [pariah] at school—are dutifully recorded by Jo for future use. Maturing in the second act, Amy comes into her own, having learned to manipulate her limited gender role.
Hamill’s Jo (underscored by Firman’s direction) is more than Alcott’s creative, intelligent, rebellious tomboy; she’s apparently transgender. Female readers identifying with Jo wanted to escape scripted feminine roles; many still do. But Jo—whom Ashley Bufkin plays passionately, vibrantly, and fully—wants not just a man’s options but manhood, without having the language to define her desire. So she stays in pants throughout as the swashbuckler of her adventure tales, complete with tied-on moustache, as if constantly in rehearsal for their next family play. (As in the New York show, she’s a woman of color, reinforcing yet again, perhaps unnecessarily, her “difference” from the others.)
When Amy screams at her “You great ugly boy!” we absolutely feel the painful oppressiveness of gender roles; Hamill’s point hits home. But not all Jo-identifying readers are trans, and so the wider application of the story is lost. Too often here the need to make obvious, contemporary statements—about gender, social roles, or writing itself—transcends the core story. More than any of Hamill’s previous works, “Little Women” sacrifices art to ideals.
Although seeing past works through a new prism can be valuable, we automatically already bring our own contemporary vision to their innate socio-political values. Yet despite the script’s unsubtle agenda, this retelling of “Little Women” has power and presence.