By Connie Shakalis H-T Reviewer
By the next morning, I often know how the previous night’s play affected me, and “Little Women,” playing at Indiana University Summer Theatre, is lingering. It’s on the long side, two and a half hours with an intermission, but that only helped draw me into this family saga set in New England during the American Civil War.
Marisha Chamberlain adapted the famous semi-autobiographical novel by Louisa May Alcott, and director Jenny McKnight brings the cast to life amid Reuben Lucas’ set design and upstage-wall projections.
Using stunning digital effects, Lucas changed seasons to portray the passage of time. I also liked his upstairs “garret” for second sister Jo (Samantha Rahn). Its imaginary wall lets us peek at this complicated, fiery teenager as she writes stories and shares confidences with the wealthy neighbor boy, Laurie (Josh Carter), who adores her. “You climb trees, don’t you?” he asks. Of course she does.
Jo represents Alcott herself, who derided marriage and its confining lifelong “sewing and cooking” responsibilities. “Marriage is the very worst thing,” Jo tells her sisters. Alcott never married, although she adopted her sister’s baby girl when her sister died shortly after the birth.
Coming right after IU’s hilarious and raucous “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Little Women” was a pensive trek into Victorian era history. My mother’s side of my family came from the same Massachusetts area as the Alcotts, and at times Saturday night I pretended I was watching my ancestors.
Well-written plays teach, and this does. I keep forgetting how difficult it was for 19th century women, who had limited choices. They married, often into lives of drudgery and perilous childbearing, or they worked outside the home. As Jo’s sister reminds her, a woman who earned her own living back then “has a very hard life.” I look at my desktop Mac, then I think about having a Big Mac down the street from my air-conditioned home, and I am grateful to be here in 2019, 157 years after “Little Women” begins.
Ted Kooser, U.S. poet laureate, 2004-06, said in Sunday’s Herald-Times, “(Today’s poem) states just what I look for in the poems I choose for this column.” Kooser then quotes from “Moonflowers,” a poem by James Davis May: “We praise the world by making / others see what we see.” What an apt observation about art. Alcott, along with this cast and crew, makes us see what life was like for certain families in 1862-63 New England. This morning, more than half a day later, I am still in Lucas’ set, a living area, waiting for tea and biscuits to be served by Hannah (Isabelle Gardo), the March family’s cook.
The play covers Part I of Alcott’s two-volume novel. The Marches, “a poor, eccentric, bookish family,” according to sister Beth (Tayler Fischer), enjoyed a Christmas Eve feast and plenty of presents the previous winter. In 1862, however, they await a meager plum pudding, a pudding that is soon to be given away to a neighbor family that is even poorer than the Marches. “They have nothing,” Mrs. March (Ellise Chase) tells her four daughters as they carry the fragrant food out the door.
My grandmother, whose parents grew up near the Alcotts, used to talk about “making silk purses out of sows’ ears”; this came to mind, as the Marshes, having little income, create what they need. No set or scenery for Jo’s play? The Marsh girls merely upend sofa and tables to serve as their stage.
Jo is the show’s star, and we get glorious glimpses of a tomboy’s struggles in a male-dominated society. Her self assurance and wanderlust — “We’re meant to go out and see the world” — shock all but her empathic mother, who admits to Jo not only their mother-daughter similarities, but Mrs. Marsh’s continual discomfort (her husband, played by Daniel Meeks, is off at war). “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” she tells Jo.
Jo occasionally tries to fit in with her society but usually ends up resisting its norms. Interesting, too, is the assortment of personalities within the family. Firstborn Meg (Brynn Jones) yearns for caviar — and a kiss from a neighbor’s tutor (Peter Ruiz); Beth, a pianist, is painfully introverted: “Oh, I want to be at home.” Amy (Allison Marshall), the youngest, is delightfully self-absorbed and adds to the plot’s humor with her naivete and strings of malapropisms.
A character dies, which reminds me of having heard about our country’s past scourge of scarlet fever, and, again, I give thanks for 2019.