“Marmee, please — no analogies!”
So groans Jo March, to head off her mother’s thoughtful comparison between attending the needs of different people just as different plants, in “Little Women,” adapted by playwright Kate Hamill from Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1860s novel. It’s now running at Seattle Rep through Dec. 17.
With apologies to Jo, let’s begin with an analogy of our own, because when a show presents you with a tidy encapsulation of its problems, you take it.
To start: A lovely preshow tableau sits onstage. In front of sumptuous red curtains, a dollhouse with cheery lit windows sits atop a brick fireplace mantel; as the lights go down, the fireplace crackles to life, smoke pours from the wee chimney as snowflakes drift down, and the curtains swish open from this cozy miniature scene to reveal … a shell. Not quite a void, but a glorified house frame with a hollow heart, and, sadly, a perfect physical reflection of the show before us.
Here live the March sisters — sensible but vain eldest sister Meg (Cy Paolantonio), aspiring writer Jo (Amelio García), delicate Beth (Katie Peabody) and petulant littlest sister Amy (Rebecca Cort) — watched over by Marmee (Colleen Madden) and long-serving maid and cook Hannah (Macall Gordon), while their father (Chiké Johnson) is away in the Civil War. The girls, Jo in particular, find a friend and kindred spirit in Laurie (Austin Winter), a sensitive young man who moves in with his rich grandfather next door.
Together, Laurie and the March girls grow from lives of childish imagination, playing together in Jo’s wild theatricals, toward the more sober, grown-up pursuits available to them. They all strain against and within societal expectations in different ways, and Hamill ostensibly explores the novel’s issues of gender identity through a modern lens, particularly how Jo, always defined as a tomboy, might have presented or identified had she lived in a less rigid era. It’s an incredibly interesting idea, but not what shows up onstage. Or, rather, it is exactly all that shows up: one idea over and over again, explicitly stated in scene one and reiterated (it feels like) every few pages.
“I’m the man of the family, with father away,” pronounces Jo in an early scene, explaining why she still wears the swashbuckler’s costume, complete with false mustache, she wore rehearsing the Christmas play she wrote for herself and her sisters.
“Jo, you know you can’t,” Marmee says soon after, referring to Jo’s preferred clothing. Soon after that: “Don’t ask me for womanish opinions, Meg, I never say the right thing.” And so it goes, always restated but never expanded or actually explored within the confines of the show’s cultural world. It’s a Big Idea pasted on top of an existing story and shouted out with all the subtlety of America Ferrera’s feminism 101 monologue in the “Barbie” movie.
Hamill exploded onto the New York theater scene in 2014 when her adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” with theater company Bedlam earned a rave from The New York Times. This year she landed, and not for the first time, on American Theatre magazine’s list of the country’s most-produced playwrights. It turns out there is a hefty regional theater appetite for beloved titles repackaged with modern, feminist ideas.
As flat as this interpretation fell for me, I genuinely like Hamill as a smart, inventive playwright with a taste for reworking stories like “The Scarlet Letter,” “Dracula” and “Emma” that have historically punished or limited women in ways big and small, overt and covert. Her “Pride and Prejudice,” which landed at Seattle Rep in 2017, was fizzy fun, and the high-concept, meta-theatrical style only heightened the stakes of the story’s intricate social machinations.
Maybe it’s the lack of any discernible connection between the characters onstage, but no one seemed to be having all that much fun (the fact that many of the cast members were hard to hear didn’t help). Critically, there’s no palpable sense of kinship, platonic or romantic, between Jo and Laurie. Amy, who in the novel sometimes misuses words in her frantic desire to seem older than she is, now misuses words constantly, and the joke wears thin. However, Cort’s balled fists and grumpy little walk earn all the many laughs they get; you can practically feel her Amy vibrating with the white-hot rage that only a disrespected youngest sibling can generate.
I won’t get into all the ways this adaptation sands down its story’s bittersweet edges, but suffice to say the emotional tidiness is jarring. Life can feel hard, and while life for the March sisters doesn’t feel easy, it does feel straightforward. There seems to be no internal struggle, only grappling with external circumstance: Of course Jo shouldn’t marry Laurie, of course Meg and her husband will work things out, of course Amy will live happily ever after.
Ultimately, I missed the familiar ache of “Little Women,” of painful choices made, childhood vanished, love misplaced. With this version, your brain might be temporarily intrigued but no heartstrings will be tugged and no beliefs challenged, and at the end of the day, why else do we need stories? Jo March knows that better than anyone.