Imagine surviving the terror of the Civil War, the strains of poverty, the fear of disease and death, and the pain of lost love, all while living through the most horrific occurrence of all: puberty. Stirring in sisterhood, romance, kindness, charity, and fulfilled dreams proves that Louisa May Alcott sure knew how to write the equivalent of a 19th-century chick flick. And Blackfriars' production of Little Women captures Alcott's intentions.
Struggling to hold hearth and home together in the absence of her father, Jo March, the quintessential tomboy, is the "man" of the family. Jo, her three sisters, and their Marmee struggle to remain an upstanding family while father is away at war. Although Jo takes her responsibility as head of household seriously, her true passion is writing. She narrates the story of her family's journey.
As the show opens, the words "I am not afraid of storms for I am leaving to sail my ship" appear scrawled across the stage in light. This bold statement defines Louisa May Alcott, a talented, intelligent, strong-willed, and forward-thinking woman. As the story's center, Jo must be played with exuberance and unrefined polish.
Dana Mittelman searches through possessions of youth. She waxes nostalgic, smiling and dreamy. Is this Jo? Is this the explorer? Katharine Hepburn in pants, or Amelia Earhart flying the Atlantic? Mittelman struggles to define Jo, to balance strength and desire with loyalty and love. The exposition Mittelman must deliver makes for an awkward, slow introduction. It isn't until Jo is thrown into her element, romping around and bossing about her sisters, that Mittelman grabs hold of Jo and finds the character. But once she's grasped it, Mittelman succeeds.
The relationship between sisters defines this tale. Each actress lends a unique flavor. The prim and proper older sister, Meg, played with grace by Rebecca Herber, feels a responsibility to set the example. Young Amy has high hopes. As played by Abbey Reynolds, Amy is innocently snobby and charmingly selfish. But it's the performance of Jill Rittinger as Beth, the sweetly shy and sickly middle sister, that breaks the heart. With an ivory complexion set against strawberry locks, her delicate beauty, slight movements, and fragile voice create an endearing Beth.
As for the men, Laurie, the poor little rich boy who falls desperately for Jo, is played by Matthew Rossi. Although Laurie should begin as a playful teen, once his romantic hopes are dashed, the character should develop into a brooding, bitter man. This transformation never occurs. Without power, heat, or passion, a woman like Jo wouldn't look twice at Laurie. No wonder Jo falls for Professor Friedrich Bhaer, as played by Ben Wilson. Intelligent, thoughtful, honest, and charming, Bhaer challenges Jo. Wilson plays him effortlessly --- and he manages to make a German accent sexy.
Built on a massive turntable, the set, designed by director John Haldoupis, is multi-faceted and amazing, transforming from attic to living room to Paris garden to New York City apartment. The March attic is located atop a curtained platform and, while this set makes creative use of a small space, the actors blocked upon it seem in peril of falling to imminent death (or at least imminent concussion).
The set is also painted entirely in a dusty pink. Entirely! Yes, the show is about women, but women have more than one color, especially the multi-faceted March women. It's the distinctive lighting design by Ron Heerkens Jr. --- a design that splashes across the stage cursive quotes written in light --- that keeps the audience completely engaged during scene transitions.
At times, the interactions between the actors come dangerously close to cheesy, especially when introduced with overly sentimental piano and violin transition music. However, this production receives the Mom stamp of approval. Literally: my Mom attended with me and gave it her unqualified thumbs up. This production beautifully weaves an American tapestry, creating the March women and their men as a charming family. Bring the young women (and men) in your life to experience the classic Little Women.
Little Women | through December 23 | Blackfriars Theatre, 248 East Avenue | $24 | 454-1260, www.blackfriars.org