Entering the Playcrafters Barn Theatre for Friday’s opening night of Little Women, I had a certain number of expectations. Like most people, I’m familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s story, so I was prepared for some joys, some sorrows, and the four March sisters. I wasn’t, however, anticipating Reader reviewer Roger Pavey Jr.’s scenic design to blow me out of the water before the show even began.
With help from set dressers Kathy Graham and castmate Shyan DeVoss, Pavey has created the perfect little Massachusetts home for the March family. There was an immediate element of cozy – the home may not be the finest, but there’s life in it. Pavey even created an attic garret for Jo to write in and, while director Madelyn Dorta didn’t utilize that space as much as I maybe would've liked, I’m not sure the script called for the garret locale much.
The other thing I couldn’t have anticipated was that this adaptation of Little Women by Marisha Chamberlain was originally written for the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. (True story: That’s the very venue in which I first fell in love with theatre.) However, this script felt to me at least somewhat stunted, even though all of the story's major aspects are there. Jo (Kassidy Holdridge) dreams of bigger, better things and escapes her humdrum existence by writing. Meg (DeVoss) is the older sister who tries to keep everyone in line when Marmee (Janessa Ormsby) isn’t around. Beth (Bella Hernandez) is painfully shy and loves her piano. And Amy (Emma Terronez), the youngest sister, is kind of a brat. Because Father March (Craig Gaul) is off being a Civil War chaplain, the poor family is just trying to make the best of a fairly miserable situation.
What Chamberlain’s script couldn’t damper was the overarching spirit of Jo March, and Holdridge truly shines in this role. Holdridge commands attention whenever she’s on stage, presenting enough confidence and bravado to well-encapsulate the second of the sisters and the true heroine of the story. It isn’t any wonder, I’d wager, that each sister would say Jo was her favorite.
Terronez’s Amy is whiny and almost completely unredeemed, making it okay by me that she was sent away for most of the second act. However, I wish Chamberlain’s script gave Amy some growth: She’s primarily remembered in this version for burning Jo’s book. On that note, I do have one major staging complaint, as Dorta has Amy throw the book into the logs, and okay … real fire on stage could be problematic. But when we came back from intermission, the book was inexplicably still there, making Jo’s lamentations about how the book is gone practically laughable.
Meanwhile, the relationship established between Meg and Jo works wonderfully. DeVoss brings an air of fun to the Meg character while keeping her conventional and respectable – all the things an oldest sister must be. While Meg’s relationship with John Brooke (a sweet and unassuming Maxwell Johnson) is almost underplayed – my guess is that's because young audiences aren’t super-into romances – Meg is still the only sister who gets a satisfying ending in this production.
As for Beth, she gets exactly the ending you expect, only it comes significantly earlier than Alcott's story calls for. Yet Dorta stages this key moment beautifully, with Jo cradling her head and Pavey’s lights bringing a nice focus to the sadness. Even though Marmee and Meg are asleep nearby, it’s as though Jo and Beth are the only two people in the world.
Maybe Chamberlain's version significantly downplayed the nastiness of Aunt March because the original intended audience was children. Here, portrayer Pam Cantrell just seems to be a little misconstrued and overly opinionated. By the same token, old Mr. Lawrence (Gregory Braid) isn’t terrifying the way he is in the book, or movie, or even other stage adaptations. In fact, the character is almost laughably nice in a bumbly kind of way. And although Marmee and Hannah (Blake Gordon) aren’t given much stage time, I truthfully didn’t mind. This is, after all, a story about the sisters, so giving them the space to grow is imperative.
Chamberlain's rendition definitely doesn’t reach the tale's true conclusion, and some elements are out of sequence, but there’s no glossing over their next-door neighbor Laurie (the brilliantly likable Thayne Lamb) and the charm he brings to the March sisters’ lives. Jo finds a companion in Laurie, and Holdridge and Lamb are lovely together in their time on stage: I just wish there was more of this pair in this enactment!
Little Women has a reputation for being a lengthy novel, so while it’s not surprising that Dorta’s production feels long even with an intermission, it’s still slightly shocking how much of the story isn’t covered until you realize Chamberlain’s script leaves the March sisters young; they’re little women, after all. Dorta’s cast has a lot of heart and Holdridge alone is so effortlessly Jo March that anything missing in the plot doesn’t much matter. Alcott was reportedly surprised when her novel achieved success. Those at Playcrafters need not be surprised that their production follows suit.
Little Women runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline IL) through July 30, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 and visiting Playcrafters.com.