In a serendipitous piece of timing, Dallas Theater Center is putting on a new production of Little Women just as the latest acclaimed film version is winding down its run in theaters. The timelessness of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, which was originally published in 1868 and 1869, is as evident as ever.
This adaptation, written by Kate Hamill and directed by Sarah Rasmussen, is a traditional retelling of the story with the occasional modern flourish. As always, it centers on Jo March (Pearl Rhein), a free-spirited young woman with a love for writing whose ambitions lie far beyond simply being a wife.
Jo and her sisters — Beth (Maggie Thompson), Amy (Lilli Hokama), and Meg (Jennie Greenberry) — are a tight-knit bunch, acting out Jo’s plays and teasing each other constantly. They’re often joined by Laurie (Louis Reyes McWilliams), the boy who lives next door with whom Jo develops a strong friendship, and for whom Amy pines unrequitedly.
The story depends on the audience investing in the four sisters, and in that respect, this production does a great job at showing their unique dynamic. Jo is the leader due to her forceful personality and skill with the pen, but the others give as good as they take, especially Meg.
However, apart from Jo, Hamill tends to lump all of the sisters together, rarely giving the three others any individual moments. Beth is noted for her music talent and her illness, and Meg finds love with Laurie’s tutor, Mr. Brooks (Alex Organ), but Amy, who is often the most notable March sister aside from Jo, is shunted to the side. Her love of art is next to nonexistent in this version, and the role essentially boils down to her malapropisms (ie, saying “piranha” instead of “pariah) and her crush on Laurie, a side plot which has a crucial ingredient that is not addressed in this play.
This relatively short adaptation, clocking in at less than two hours, feels like a sped-up version of the story. Significant plot developments come and go quickly, muting the emotional impact of those and other events. While we get to know the sisters and Laurie relatively well, hardly any other character makes an impact.
The sparse set design by Wilson Chin works well, with a turntable rotating around a stationary fireplace to transition to different locations. The lack of walls means much is left up to the imagination of the audience as to where exactly a certain scene is taking place. The actors collectively do a great job, giving the audience all they need to visualize a location.
While not all of them get equal time, each of the actors portraying the March sisters is compelling in her own way. The two who stand out the most are Rhein, who is a great fit for Jo with a husky voice and a go-for-broke personality; and Thompson, who never lets Beth fade into the background or become one-note, which is tough for her ill-fated character.
Of the supporting actors, Sally Nystuen Vahle makes the most impact, inhabiting three separate roles equally well. On the flip side, though, McWilliams never seems to get comfortable as Laurie. His overall demeanor seems ill-suited to the character, and his chemistry with the sisters is hit-and-miss.
Little Women is a classic, but this adaptation of the story fails to find the proper way to express why it is so enduring. It’s a rare misstep by Dallas Theater Center, as their successes far outweigh their failures.
Dallas Theater Center will present Little Women at Kalita Humphreys Theater through March 1.