Review: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's 'Little Women' Still Possesses Meaningful Magic

"Little Women" is a tale that still has meaning in modern times.

click to enlarge The cast of 'Little Women' at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company from L-R: Angelique Archer, Emilie O'Hara, Elizabeth Chinn Molloy, Torie Wiggins and Maggie Lou Rader. - Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
The cast of 'Little Women' at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company from L-R: Angelique Archer, Emilie O'Hara, Elizabeth Chinn Molloy, Torie Wiggins and Maggie Lou Rader.

Playwright Kate Hamill has carved out a special niche in today’s theater world, adapting classic novels into playscripts. This season, she’s among the most produced playwrights in the country, including her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women currently onstage at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. She also created the script for Cincy Shakes’ production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, interrupted before the worldwide pandemic then returned last season for a well-received run.

You might imagine that a novel about girls growing up in the 1860s would be sweet and overly sentimental, but Hamill’s intention is in a different direction. In a remark published in the production’s Cincinnati program, she says, “I specifically wanted my Little Women to reflect American women today,” and adds, “All young girls and women deserve to see themselves onstage in a universal story, particularly with the limitless imaginative bounds of theater.”

The irony of Alcott’s title — and to this play — is that there’s really nothing “little” about the four March sisters. We meet them as spirited girls in extravagant play-acting, but life’s circumstances soon push them into adulthood quickly. The Civil War is raging elsewhere; their father, a military chaplain, is wounded. When their mother, “Marmie,” leaves to care for her husband, her daughters must act quickly. The family’s financial circumstances are perilously unstable, and Jo, the central character, hopes her writing can stabilize them. Reality bears down on all of them, with occasional disagreement and conflict, even though their mischievous creativity never completely evaporates. But they take on new responsibilities and concerns as time passes.

Cincy Shakes’ production design by Shannon Moore literally reminds us that time is passing: Nearly two dozen clocks decorate the set’s rear wall — wall clocks with pendulums, mantel clocks on ledges, ornate timepieces atop pieces of furniture. As the two-hour production’s scenes progress through time, the intervals are briefly punctuated by darkness with one clock or another spotlighted, usually accompanied by loud ticking. 

If you’ve read Little Women (or seen any of its cinematic incarnations) you will recall Josephine (“Jo,” with all its tomboyish connotations) is an aspiring writer who writes fantastic tales to be enacted by her sisters. Elizabeth Chinn Molloy portrays Jo with spunk and verve, constantly finding fame as a writer just beyond her grasp, success that she desperately hopes will help her family’s difficult straits. Willful and single-minded, she has a stubborn temper. She fears there is “no place for me in the world,” but we know she cares and struggles to do her best for her family. Jo’s slightly older sister Meg is beautiful and pragmatic, more traditional in her aspirations. Younger sister Beth is shy and musical, but also the family peacemaker. The baby of the family, Amy, is interested in art but rather spoiled, vain and self-centered.

Their mother, caring Marmie, is played with warmth and understanding by Torie Wiggins, a veteran local actor. She also steps into the role of the imperious Aunt March, a judgmental and intolerant older relative, for one scene. Meg (portrayed by Maggie Lou Rader) is sweet, caring and pragmatic, but overwhelmed by motherhood once she marries John Brooke. Beth (portrayed by Angelique Archer) is the sweet, thoughtful moral center of the four, and in Hamill’s retelling, she is the catalyst for Jo to write stories that are more real, more accurately reflecting the existence that the March family is living. Amy (portrayed by Emilie O’Hara) is a flatter, more comic character, exasperated by being treated as a child, even as her behavior is little more than childish. She progresses from that position to more of a poised young woman as the story unfolds but remains rather self-centered.

Laurie (portrayed by Patrick Earl Phillips) is the “boy next door,” who’s obviously enamored by Jo, but whose yearning is constantly deflected. They are best friends, but he never succeeds in elevating their connection to romance, much to his dismay. Jo demands so much of herself in her pursuit of writing success that she is unable to return Laurie’s affection. Phillips does a fine job of walking this emotional tightrope, never pushing too hard but always subtly revealing a deeper feeling that Jo won’t acknowledge but that the audience feels deeply.

As John Brooke, Meg's suitor and eventual husband, Justin McCombs is awkward and endearing, simply a good man trying to do the right things by his wife, even when she feels unable to bear the expectations of raising their children. McCombs’ comic flair is used momentarily when he dons a red-crested mask with a beak to play stern Aunt March’s parrot, underscoring her harsh remarks by barking the final few words each time she speaks. This amusing vignette somewhat softens Jo’s disappointment when she’s displaced by Amy to accompany their aunt on a European excursion.

I suspect that Hamill’s take on Alcott’s story and these characters will trouble some purists. In the program interview, she says, “I believe in radical adaptation — in bringing new lenses to old stories and approaching adaptation very much as a new play speaking to modern audiences, as a collaboration between myself and the original author. I feel that adaptations that bring nothing new to the table are doing a disservice to both the original and the play, which must stand by itself as a work of theater.”

The show opens and closes with a conversation between Beth and Jo. At the outset, the sweet younger sister implores her imaginative sibling to “tell me a story,” something that feels more real and close to the lives of these young women. At the conclusion, Hamill has the family gather around Beth’s sickbed. She again begs Jo to tell a story, clearly asking for the “story” of Little Women. It’s the progression of growth, love and maturity between the March sisters that she asks Jo to depict. It’s a tale that still has meaning in modern times.

Little Women, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company at the Otto M. Budig Theater in Over-the-Rhine, continues through Dec. 3. Info: cincyshakes.com.


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