'Little Women': Jungle’s remix is smart and subversive

Little Women

Little Women Rich Ryan

“The book is not so much a novel,” wrote critic Joan Acocella about Little Women, “as a sort of wad of themes and scenes and cultural wishes. It is more like the Mahabharata or the Old Testament.”

Little Women

Jungle Theater

That helps to explain why readers have kept returning to Louisa May Alcott’s book for 150 years, always finding resonance. Kate Hamill’s fascinating new adaptation, now onstage as the Jungle Theater’s first-ever commissioned world premiere, is so true to the story’s spirit while alive to the present day that it feels like Alcott somehow smuggled it across the centuries, as sharp as a file hidden in a cake.

No playwright could bring the sprawling novel to the stage without significant abbreviation, but Hamill has gone a step further and created what amounts to a remix. Plotlines are shifted and characters are sharpened; episodes are combined, and Marmie (Christina Baldwin, making a saint gratifyingly human) recedes as the four March girls come strongly to the fore.

Hamill captures those “little women’s” essences so precisely that the world created by director Sarah Rasmussen will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the book.

Meg (Christine Weber) is the oldest, ready to fly the nest but already missing her youthful idylls. Amy (a hilarious Megan Burns) is the picture of pique, continually consternated with her family’s departures from the status quo. Beth (played with stunning delicacy by Isabella Star LaBlanc) is the loving peacemaker.

The play, though, like the novel, is fundamentally the story of Jo. Here, C. Michael Menge absorbingly portrays a gender nonconformist in a world where that wasn’t accepted, onstage in a world where it’s starting to be. Jo and Laurie (Michael Hanna), who has his own discomfort with the era’s gender roles, strike up an affectionate friendship of mutual permission: They recognize they can be themselves with one another.

This Little Women feels like the apotheosis of the art Rasmussen has wrought at the Jungle since 2016. That’s crucially meant new stories with new artists, for new audiences—but it’s also meant a reimagining of the Jungle’s physical space. Here, set designer Chelsea M. Warren creates a warm but spare living-room set with a fireplace that remains symbolically stationary even as a turntable rotates beneath it.

That evocation of lives in search of shape and meaning fits with Hamill’s accentuation of Jo as a writer. Jo is Alcott’s alter ego in the semi-autobiographical novel, and the script celebrates the heroism of an author who captured women’s complex lives in the Civil War era with such acute insight that it remains readily accessible. This play is amazing.