Baltimore’s lone brick-and-mortar theater company dedicated exclusively to producing the work of women playwrights is entering the midpoint of its 12th season, having opened the third of six productions this weekend. Occupying the “holiday slot” is a new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel “Little Women”. Both written and directed by Erin Riley, Strand’s associate artistic director, the play is a wonderfully executed adaptation of the canonical work.
In it, we meet the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. They live in a New England town with their mother, whom they call “Marmee”, and a housekeeper, Hannah. Mr. March is away fighting the Civil War – and in his absence, the ladies eke out a frugal living as the young sisters pass from childhood to womanhood. Adventures, joys, and a tragedy form their journeys both collectively and as they eventually move apart.
Taken as a whole this ensemble is tightly woven uniformly excellent.
The story of Alcott’s novel is topical (and autobiographical). Viewed with 21st-century eyes, it may tempt a certain degree of dismissal; the status and aspirations of the March sisters feel dated – pre-feminist – at first glance. But to stop looking there is a disservice to Alcott, and to Riley’s mostly faithful adaptation. With a single heartbreaking exception, the March women are in full control of their destinies, led by a matriarch whose ambition for them is that they grow to become their best selves and soar.
In Riley’s script, the action is divided into a large number of short scenes, introduced or narrated by Alcott’s first-person voice, Jo (Surasree Das). This structure by playwright Riley presents a risk of too many interruptions of flow, but Riley the director keeps that from happening as Das practically whirls back and forth across the fourth wall as if by jet propulsion. A single set by designer Laurie Brandon represents the March home, as well as that of wealthy neighbors and an even wealthier Aunt March (Kathryn Falcone). Neighbors Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (JC Payne) and his grandfather (Bill Brekke) and tutor, Mr. Brooke (Alexander Scally) befriend the ladies. Jo and Laurie raise hijinx while eldest sister Meg (Elizabeth Ung), shy and musical Beth (Katharine Vary), and precocious artist Amy (Anabel Milton) navigate their teenage years together.
Das’ performance as Jo is not only energetic, it is rich with palpable frustration as her character claws against imposed boundaries. Vary gives the painfully reserved Beth tremendous backbone when it matters most. Ung exhibits a tremendous command of timing as Meg; and as Amy, Milton scores big points for illustrating the youngest sister’s journey from a girl of 12 all the way to marriage and motherhood. Washington and Falcone deliver very fine work here, the latter in a trio of roles with as many different dialects. Scally pulls double-duty as well. Taken as a whole this ensemble is tightly woven uniformly excellent.
Running Time: Approximately 130 minutes with one intermission.
“Little Women” runs through December 22 at Strand Theater Company, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore. For tickets call (443) 874-4917 or purchase online.