Saturday, December 2, 2017

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Little Women"

Disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Louisa May Alcott's 1868-69 novel Little Women is on the boards at The Cloverdale Playhouse. Having had several film and stage versions, this new "trunk-show" adaptation is by Playhouse Artistic Director Sarah Walker Thornton. She does not attempt to cover the entire breadth of Alcott's novel; rather, Ms. Thornton's episodic structure narrows the focus to the immediate struggles of the March family's titular "little women" in Civil War Era America, covering some ten years. It is, by turns, a nostalgic coming of age story, a touching family drama, and an early appraisal of the emerging status of women yearning to be on a par with men.

Played on J. Scott Grinstead's minimalist forced perspective architectural framework set, with an assortment of props pulled from a steamer trunk, a shadow-play curtain judiciously punctuating the story, with Temperance & Jason Grinstead, along with Danny Davidson-Cline's neutral period looking costumes that are frequently overlaid with vests, shawls, skirts, and hats to denote character changes and role-playing, and an on-stage three-piece band playing Greg Thornton's evocative score as well as a number of traditional melodies, simplicity is the key to Ms. Thornton's storytelling, allowing each new scene to describe a particular moment that contributes to the overall plot.

Her focus is on family, after all, and the love that binds them together and us to them. -- The family bond is apparent from the onset as the four adolescent girls entertain themselves by staging adventurous plays devised by Jo [Sarah Key], the tomboy protagonist who yearns for a writing career and freedom to exercise her wits as an equal to men. The girls' personalities often get in the way of a harmonious household, but their ever patient Marmee [Katie Pearson] offers sound advice and homespun wisdom to deflate any animosity among her daughters; and their servant Hannah [Teri Sweeney] bustles about.

Young Amy [Kacey Walton], a vain charmer in her blond curls, has a gift for art, though she can be vindictive when she doesn't get her way. Meg [Lauren Morgan] is the eldest daughter and also the most traditional, always aware of maintaining propriety. Beth [Valorie Roberts] is the gentle peacemaking one who never asks anything for herself.

It is a household without men; since Mr. March [Adam Shephard] is away at the war, the women are left to their own devices, and are financially beholden to their tyrannical Aunt March [Ms. Sweeney again]. -- But men are close by: wealthy next door neighbor Mr. Lawrence [also Mr. Shephard] befriends them when his young grandson Theodore "Laurie/Teddy" Lawrence [Matthew Klinger] gets to know the girls and becomes best friends with Jo. "Laurie" and his tutor, John Brooke [J. Scott Grinstead] endear themselves to the March women with kindly acts freely given to women living in genteel poverty, especially in times of distress for Mr. March and illness of the girls.

Most of the play's attention is given to Jo, whose independent spirit of adventure and curiosity feed her desire to become a famous writer; and we experience her growing maturity and that of the others in her realm through her perspective. -- Ms. Key holds our attention in every moment, whether she cajoles or comforts her sisters, or capitulates to Marmee's advice, or idolizes her father, or teases "Teddy", or falls in love with Friedrich Bhaer [Mr. Grinstead in this role also], a German professor she meets in New York where she goes to develop her writing skills, and whose gentle prompting of her talents helps give focus to her life, this is a credible performance in all its complexity.

The ensemble cast define their roles well and support one another generously. Special note ought to be given to Mr. Klinger and Mr. Grinstead: Mr. Klinger's effervescent depiction of Teddy's joie de vivre is contagious, especially in the games he plays with Jo; and his declarations of love are touching. Mr. Grinstead's portrayals of John Brooke and Professor Bhaer are quiet and intense; he appears so comfortable in the skins of each character, and his ability to generate a sincere connection to his acting partners [Ms. Morgan and Ms. Key] are the most sensitive and convincing in this production.

The two hour and twenty minute playing time could be shortened by more efficient shifting of the trunk  and small bits of furniture, and lighting that frequently leaves much of the stage in semi-darkness could better showcase the depth of the set, but this version of Little Women emphasizes the importance of family and love for our fellow human beings in such a fashion that celebrates the simple values we ought to share every day.