Theater Review: Take High Tea with Little Women in the Women's Theatre Festival's Holiday Production | Arts

Theater Review: Take High Tea with Little Women in the Women's Theatre Festival's Holiday Production

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The cast of Little Women at Sonorous Road Theatre - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • photo by Ben McKeown
  • The cast of Little Women at Sonorous Road Theatre

Little Women
★★★
Through Dec. 18
Women’s Theatre Festival
@ Sonorous Road Theatre, Raleigh


At its heart, the Women’s Theatre Festival is actually a conveyance: a theatrical vehicle intent on moving the region (and, by extension, our culture) forward by bringing a broader array of women’s voices and stories to the fore, and by leading women to more equitable states of theatrical access, training, and competency than they’ve had in the past.

In this new production of Little Women, the group passes another milestone toward those laudable goals: a holiday show, in the vein of seasonal productions by more established companies, that is accomplished and popular enough to generate funds for the festival’s annual work. Compared to the individual stagings and readings we saw during WTF’s first iteration in August, Little Women is the group’s most public bid for permanence to date.

Louisa May Alcott is sometimes overlooked as an early feminist writer, but her novel celebrates the idealism, intellect, and autonomy inculcated into the March family, while carefully noting the price exacted by such choices in the mid-1800s. Lorelei Lemon and Ashley Popio’s conspicuously brisk adaptation, in which certain plot developments are compressed, feels much shorter than the show’s two-and-a-half-hour run time.

The play chronicles the triumphs and travails of a family living in reduced circumstances, tracking the March sisters—Jo (Lemon), Meg (Maggie Lea), Beth (Ren Cleveland), and Amy (nine-year-old Seanna Osborne)—from adolescence to young adulthood. It gracefully segues between the blood-and-thunder melodramas Jo composes for her siblings’ entertainment as a teenager and the events in their real lives that inspired them, only occasionally succumbing to the sentimentalism and stiff language of the original text.

We enjoyed the main innovation here, incorporating a tea with delectable baked goods into the performance, even if the timing of the service pricked the conscience: during the first act’s second scene, just as the March children are offering their Christmas breakfast to their impoverished, hungry neighbors.

Director Popio elicits robust performances from the actors at the center of the work. Lemon’s comic gifts capture the free-spiritedness of writer Jo before more serious transitions later on. Lea convinces, again, as the willful Meg, who follows her heart into the arms of a hearty John Brooke (Josh Henderson). As the precocious Amy, Osborne delights with her endless stream of malapropisms, before actor Maxine Eloi depicts an older Amy with élan. David Hudson gives dignity and affection to Jo’s eventual suitor, Professor Bhaer.

But Cleveland has much less time to develop the frail Beth, and Matthew Tucker’s Laurie stays largely eclipsed, his character reacting instead of acting in his infatuation with Jo. Early on, stiffness crept into several crucial ensemble performances, including Celeste Hinnant’s take on Marmee and Barbara Diciero’s matriarch Aunt March, before both actors warmed to their roles.

Though Johannah Edwards and Diciero’s costumes convey us to an earlier time, Elizabeth Newton’s set still seems underdressed for a show intended to be a signature holiday production. Scene changes that left some of the same furnishings in the houses of the rich and poor underlined a undeveloped production value. Still, this ensemble warmed a cold December night with reminders of generosity, compassion, integrity, and love. With such commodities currently in short supply, that’s a large contribution in itself.

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