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Eric Uhlfelder

Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” transcribed by Kate Hamill

“Little Women”
Directed by Sarna Lapine
May 15 to June 29, 2019
Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Reviewed by Eric Uhlfelder June 5, 2019

If you don’t know Kate Hamill, make haste to do so.

New York theater is dominated by mega hits and movies turned Broadway shows. But for those looking for more personal, thought-provoking evenings, Ms. Hamill, just 36, is making quite a name for herself in not just transcribing classic literature into plays, but doing so in a modern, wickedly fast-paced meter that leaves nothing sacred. This has earned her many professional honors, including a Helen Hayes Award for Most Outstanding Production and The Wall Street Journal’s Best Playwright of the Year.

Her latest endeavor is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at the Cherry Lane Theater, which occupies a jewel of a corner in the historic West Village (actually on Commerce Street) that provides the ideal transition back to the 1860s.

I was first introduced to Ms. Hamill’s work several years ago at Bedlam’s production of Sense and Sensibility. With the ingenious direction of Eric Tucker, the writer took this 19th-century classic and turned it into a romp of all sorts of silliness that served to highlight the story’s most poignant scenes.

In her very intelligent and thoughtful portrayal of Meg in Little Women, Hamill still at times lets loose such unconstrained emotion so as to turn serious scenes comical. And this is one tell that informs the many ways in which Hamill’s work succeeds.

From a young age, the playwright was touched by literature. But where one can be captivated by pages of sensitive description in the quiet of one’s own room, public staging requires a sharp editorial knife and accessibility to the audience.

To that end, explains Hamill, “I believe in radical adaptation, a kind of co-authorship between myself and the original writers … [their work] should be allowed to grow and breathe and surprise.” And while the original authors may not posthumously agree with all her treatments, that’s what Hamill’s transcriptions do.

Though I had not read the novel (something she urges her actors not to do before exploring their respective roles), it’s easy to sense the dozen-plus vignettes Hamill pulls from the story to succinctly tell the tale. Her transcription engages by constantly shifting gears and morphing back and forth from loopy to the dramatic and spaces in between while deftly telling the underlying story.

In ways, this may reflect Hamill’s actual persona. With sweet, girl-next-door looks and a genuine, polite personality, Hamill is a dynamo, a non-stop theatrical enterprise who writes, transcribes, acts, travels, gives interviews, pitches for support and production, while also finding time to get engaged to a fellow actor. This emerging shooting star is casting a compelling glow through a growing body of work that’s putting her on a unique literary path, one that will be fascinating to follow. Her next endeavor: The Scarlet Letter.

Kate Hamill (Meg), Carmen Zilles (Amy), Ellen Harvey (Hannah), Paola Sanchez Abreu (Beth),and Kristolyn Lloyd (Jo). Photo by James Leynse.

Little Women is many stories: a mid-19th-century tale about the financially strapped March household comprised of a mother and four daughters; the challenge of choosing between doing what’s expected of one versus following one’s own heart; disillusionment found when having followed either path; tough-earned wisdom that may ease the journey; and the strongest undercurrent of all—the US Civil War. The military conflict is only once brought visually on stage with the return of the family’s wounded father. The damage caused by a nation viciously tearing itself apart is echoed in a family that at times does likewise to itself.

The playwright manages all of these forces across the two-hour production without any one pulling the story inexorably in a particular direction, revealing a family that’s often in free fall but whose stronger desire to stay together helps it avoid irreparable damage.

Sarna Lapine creatively directs all this within the narrow confines of Cherry Lane’s small rectangular stage. Kudos to set designer Mikko Suzuji MacAdams who works with the theater’s rough exposed brick walls to convey the family’s working-class existence, inserting an open second story with multiple access to expand the stage, and moveable features that allow us to imagine a front door, distinguishing outside from inside, a living room and dining room—without a single set change.

Lapine has assembled a talented melting pot of actors. In addition to Hamill’s Beth, her other sisters include the malaprop-inclined Amy (Carmen Zilles), a kind, empathetic, barefooted suffering flower (Beth, Paola Sanchez Abreu), and the outspoken protagonist, Jo, played androgynously by Kristolyn Lloyd. Jo’s outspoken desire to be a writer drives this leading character in ways that were ahead of Alcott’s time.

Nate Mann (Laurie) and Kristolyn Lloyd (Jo) .Photo by James Leynse.

In this iteration of the story, however, it’s hard to tell whether her fierce independence to become an important author is what keeps her away from love or an orientation that’s more inclined toward masculine dress, posturing, and behavior.

The girls’ wise, gentle mom, Marmie (Maria Elena Ramirez), does her best to keep the family together, while doubling as her children’s rich, obnoxious aunt. Laurie, the story’s leading man (Nate Mann), also brings kindness and calm to the March household, though his passion for Jo seems destined early on to be unrequited.

Michael Crane (who plays Laurie’s tutor Brooks and Jo’s publisher Dashwood) provides the comedic highlight of the evening when, with just a dash of colorful plumes, he plays an overgrown but quite realistic parrot. How he pulls it off to such uncanny effect cannot be explained here, but it’s enough to give a heads up to this most delightful moment of the evening.

I’ve been to a number of productions at the Cherry Lane. "Little Women" was by far the most memorable.

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