Over the last decade, actress-playwright Kate Hamill has devoted herself to spiky reworkings of classic 18th-century novels like “Vanity Fair” and “Sense and Sensibility” — seen through a deliberately contemporary lens and often reserving a plum role for herself in the process.
Her new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” which opened Tuesday in a Primary Stages production at Cherry Lane Theatre, shows a similar flair for turning a doorstop of a novel into a relatively fleet two-hour theatrical entertainment (with intermission).
But Alcott is no Jane Austen, and you can feel the lightweightness of the material here, which is further emphasized by the broadness of Sarna Lapine’s direction. She emphasizes the radial differences in the March sisters, from the older, practical-minded Meg (Hamill) to the shy peacemaker Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu) to the flighty, malaprop-prone Amy (Carmen Zilles).
Hamill’s biggest departure comes in her reimagining of the young writer Jo (Kristolyn Lloyd) as not merely a tomboy but, as the script notes, a young woman who “does not fit comfortably within the given parameters of her given gender role.” Poor Laurie (Nate Mann), an anachronistically progressive male ally who’s willing to support her ambitions, doesn’t stand a chance in seeing his affections returned.
Purists will be surprised by other departures in plot and characterization from Alcott’s original text, and may cringe at the way that the production makes Jo both a barrier-breaking rebel as well as a petulant Peter Pan figure unwilling to allow for her sisters to grow up and out of their childhood roles.
She remains true to herself, even at a time Alcott herself could not imagine her heroine to choose such a defiant path. But Lloyd’s performance also makes her seem more stubborn and childish than truly bold.
Perhaps that approach is intentional — updating a girlhood classic for a new generation while not being too stuffy or grown-up about it. And there are moments of pure theatrical delight, as in Michael Crane’s scene-stealing turn as great-aunt March’s parrot (he also doubles as a tutor and as a “forward-thinking” publisher who’s willing to pay a female writer, though less than her male peers).
At its best (and worst), “Little Women” plays like children’s theater for the NPR crowd.