“Little Women” at Jungle Theater Finds New Staying Power

Running through Oct. 21, the world-premiere play holds up a mirror to our politics and progress

Courtesy Jungle Theater

We might associate it with fuzzy childhood nostalgia (a Christmas morning, a litter of kittens) or grim signifiers of 19th-century history (scarlet fever, genteel poverty), but Little Women is also a literary masterpiece that hasn’t gone out of print since its 1868 publication. Now, a new stage adaptation at Minneapolis’ Jungle Theater, running through October 21, brings the novel’s lasting success into 2018.

If it’s been a while since you sat down with the book by Louisa May Alcott: Four sisters come of age during the American Civil War, in a threadbare Massachusetts home, within the confines of stuffy domestic life—a life that Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy March ignite with their imaginations, combustible differences, and love for one another.

It’s poetic, then, that Sarah Rasmussen, artistic director at the Jungle, sat at the quietly creative meeting place of a friend’s kitchen table in Brooklyn, with playwright Kate Hamill, when she suggested adapting Alcott’s best-known work as a play.

The title had come up a lot. Friends, colleagues, audience members had often told Rasmussen they wanted to see Little Woman staged.

“If you start asking about Little Women, people, especially women, tend to have a very personal connection with it,” Hamill says. In her case, her mother had loved it, her mother’s mother had loved it, and she first read the book when she was around the March sisters’ age, at 11 or 12. “It’s sort of this rite of a passage—a very American story, written, of course, by an American woman.”

Even so, Rasmussen was surprised when Hamill flipped open her notebook to reveal the coming-of-age classic at the top her own list of ideas.

About three years later, the play—written to vigorous life by Hamill, with Rasmussen’s kinetic, at-times cartoon-funny directing—makes its world debut. “I’d like to give us credit for choosing to do this and have it premiere in the 150th anniversary of the book,” Rasmussen says, admitting with a laugh that they hadn’t realized their timing.

Now, that timing is everywhere. The play predates an oncoming tide of Little Women entertainment—including the 2018 film version set in today’s American suburbs, the Greta Gerwig-helmed flick planned for 2019, the 2018 TV series placing Little Women in Kashmir, and the book’s re-release by Penguin Classics.

“[Hamill and I] just knew it was a story we were inspired by and that had clearly inspired a lot of other people over the years,” Rasmussen says, pointing to a New Yorker article that names Margaret Atwood, Nora Ephron, Ursula Le Guin, Barbara Kingsolver, Stephenie Meyer, Jhumpa Lahiri, and many other women writers for whom Little Women, and particularly the bookish, unladylike main character Jo, tread a path.

Throw in the fact that the Jungle’s premiere date is coincidental, and you’d think there must be more going on here than just the big 150.

Two of the new screen adaptations dress the March sisters in modern clothing, and Gerwig writes and directs a celebrity-rostered version when she could feasibly have done anything after her critically adored Lady Bird won Oscar attention last year.

“We’re still wrestling with a lot of these same questions about women being able to fully realize themselves in the world,” Rasmussen explains. And from the grave, Alcott is still offering insights. The Jungle’s moving, irresistible rendition proves that few are better qualified to apply those insights to today than Rasmussen and Hamill.

Urgent American Classic

Hamill, one of the top 10 most-produced playwrights in the country right now and the Wall Street Journal’s “2017 Playwright of the Year,” first collaborated with Rasmussen on her 2014 stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Since that work, Hamill has earned a reputation for lively dramatizations of 19th-century novels that she grounds in contemporary language—Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, and, soon, The Scarlet Letter and Mansfield Park. At the Jungle, Rasmussen recently directed Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a holiday riff on Pride and Prejudice by playwright Lauren Gunderson. Little Women, then, wasn’t a stretch.

In fact, it made a whole lot of sense. For one, we’re still really savoring women-led 19th-century novels. Pride and Prejudice is the blockbuster example, with its spin-offs and merchandising. (Gunderson, the most-produced playwright in the country, mused in a New Yorker article last year, regarding Christmas at Pemberley, “You know what people love? Jane Austen. You know what people really love? Christmas and Jane Austen.”)

Yet Little Women stands apart. We often lump these books together—and sometimes fetishize them—as Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian English. But Alcott’s story is all-American.

“I would love for people to come in and think about what [the play] means to them as people who live in this country today,” Hamill says, “and what kind of American stories we’re telling now, and what kind of American stories we want to tell.”

One of those stories shifted dramatically for Hamill mid-adaptation, after the 2016 election. She “wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote” as certain events in the 500-plus-page book took precedence over others. She didn’t find use for the famous scene of Amy falling through the ice, but the subplot of Marmie helping an immigrant family gets an apt tie-in.

Throughout the play, patriotism wrestles with civil disconnect. The March sisters occasionally break out in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that surprisingly catchy yet melancholy Civil War tune, to segue between scenes. They march in place (“Glory, glory, hallelujah”) as flurried set changes imply the swift passage of life at home while war trudges on. Living is tight for the girls: Their father is in the war, and their mother, Marmie, rarely appears onstage without some amount of work at hand. What’s refreshing about Marmie (played by Christina Baldwin as a woman still attuned to small moments of beauty, though stressed) is that, to her, central character Jo is not the “problem daughter” she might have been to a close-minded parent. Jo wears pants, craves adventure in Europe, and casts herself as the mustachioed hero in plays she writes for her sisters.

Over time, Jo faces a series of reckonings. Older sister Meg’s imminent marriage means she’ll soon retire from their homespun repertory theater; little sister Amy’s brattiness morphs into an adult point of difference; and Jo’s evolving friendship with neighbor boy Laurie raises a truth about herself that mid-1800s society hasn’t afforded her the parlance to articulate. Though younger sister Beth entreats Jo to regale her with a “real story,” Jo prefers the escape of picaresque fantasy.

As Jo, Twin Cities actor C. Michael Menge plays someone who, even in the humor of their youth, shows risk of developing a tortured soul. Yet Menge’s Jo, even more, is deeply steadfast, enough to withstand embittering remarks about her gender expression, her interests, her indifference to courtship. So embittering, though, and so mounting, that when Jo does “break”—declaring her true feelings in response to last-straw pestering from an aunt—she nearly answers the play’s big question: As Hamill puts it, “How do you stay true to yourself when the world wants to force you into a little box?”

Jo’s fight reflects the ideological confusion of a country at war with itself—and Hamill knew it could work on a wavelength uncannily familiar to modern audiences. Jo knows who she is but, as someone others perceive as a woman, lacks the means to live by that knowledge, even, increasingly, at home. That tension might feel familiar. “It’s not always so easy to be family when you’re very, very different from each other,” Hamill explains. If election seasons generally split the public, 2016 left us with an especially pervasive sense of polarization.

But, separate from the script’s brief political signposting (in the immigration subplot and in one MAGA joke), Jo’s struggle comes across as timeless. When re-reading the novel, Hamill recognized it as “that period of transition as a woman, and especially a woman in American society, when the freedom that you’re given as a young girl—if you’re lucky—smacks up against societal expectations the minute you hit puberty.”

The question, then: Should we be concerned that a struggle like this feels “timeless”?

Contemporary Role Models

Hamill offers bitter medicine. “The day when class issues, and the struggle between your conscience and society, isn’t relevant anymore will be a happy day.” She adds, “I don’t know that we’ve ever had a moment in human history where there wasn’t inequity.”

That the 19th century feels relatable—rather than, say, the 1600s—could actually be a good sign. “It was a time when class issues were very much at the forefront, when people were really examining issues of identity, and when, ironically, we get a lot of really great female characters,” Hamill says, “who are living and negotiating their lives at a time of oppression, but who are about to burst through…and I think that’s very reflective of where we are right now.”

Back then, the suffragette movement was about to burst through, too. Women’s growing access to education was outmoding traditional attitudes about gender. Meanwhile, today’s #MeToo era sheds light on sexual assault, the pay gap, and other issues of gender inequality—at a time when more women than ever are pursuing political careers.

In moments like this, the characters of Little Women, on stage, strike a special kind of chord. To Rasmussen, the effect comes from returning to the book, on our own and as a culture, in adaptations through the decades. “In some ways, these characters feel almost like they’re long-lost friends,” she says.

We can easily, maybe surprisingly, sympathize with the intransigent Amy; actor Megan Burns plays her with the youngest-sibling hamminess we expect, but not without making us understand how, for every time she falls while reaching toward womanhood, Jo, it appears, moves effortlessly ahead, without even wanting it. As freshly wed Meg, Christine Weber has an explosive scene that’s thrillingly current, as if nabbed from a one-woman show about motherhood. Then, humble Beth, played by Isabella Star Lablanc, speaks with shame of her missing ambition, since she opts out of school to help around the house. Her real passion, for family, is by nature undisruptive, yet she, too, feels out of place.

It might be Jo’s fieriness that rouses us most, but all the girls fight, each for different footing. “I think women are just over it,” Hamill says. And that goes for all women—feminine, tomboyish, young, shy, bold, whatever.

It’s not a children’s play, Rasmussen notes, but, like the novel, “focuses on characters as they mature, and on themes that we really feel are all-ages.” It might also come off this way because of the absence of irony, of cynicism.

“They were very sincere people,” Hamill says of 19th-century society. “We are moving toward valuing more earnestness, I’m hoping.” In a time of “fake news” and constant presidential fact-checks, she suggests, “people are wanting to believe in sincerity. Wanting to have truth.”

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