Newly adapted ‘Little Women’ gets its American premier at WICA

Louisa May Alcott’s famous March sisters are coming to Langley. Whidbey Island Center for the Arts is applying the final polish to director Deana Duncan’s production of “Little Women” plays Dec. 1 through Dec. 10.

  • Wednesday, November 29, 2006 3:00pm
  • News
Louisa May Alcott’s famous March sisters are portrayed in WICA’s production of “Little Women” by (from left) Amy Walker

Louisa May Alcott’s famous March sisters are portrayed in WICA’s production of “Little Women” by (from left) Amy Walker

The ultimate feel-good show for nostalgists comes to South Whidbey.

Louisa May Alcott’s famous March sisters are coming to Langley.

Whidbey Island Center for the Arts is applying the final polish to director Deana Duncan’s production of “Little Women” plays Dec. 1 through Dec. 10.

Emma Reeves’ adaptation, which will have its U.S. premier at WICA, became an instant success when it hit the West End theaters in London. One critic gushed: “We cannot help but be won over by Alcott’s tale of the enduring love of a genteelly poor family set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. This is quite the most uplifted and good-natured evening on offer in the West End.”

“Little Women” is one of the best loved books of all time.

Lovely Meg, talented Jo, frail Beth and spoiled Amy all endure the hard lessons of poverty and of growing up in New England during the Civil War. Through their various dreams, plays, pranks, letters, illnesses and courtships, people of all ages have become endeared to this remarkable family and have felt the deep sadness when Meg leaves the circle of sisters to be married at the end of Part I.

Part II chronicles Meg’s joys and mishaps as a young wife and mother, Jo’s struggle to become a writer, Beth’s tragedy and Amy’s artistic pursuits and unexpected romance.

Based on Alcott’s childhood, this lively portrait of 19th Century family life possesses a lasting vitality that has endeared it to generations of readers.

Diligence and destiny

Alcott grew up in the historic idyll of Massachusetts near Lexington and Concord. Her parents’ every- day friends included the likes of famous writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom would give young Louisa advice on writing.

Alcott’s father was a transcendentalist philosopher and her mother was a suffragette whose Christian principles and charitable heart were the backbone of the family.

Her father struggled financially and Louisa worked several jobs through her teen years to help the family income. She began publishing stories and poems when she was still a teenager, which helped the family survive.

But it would be the publication and huge success of “Little Women” that would become the family’s “golden egg.”

“Little Women” was first published in October 1868. Louisa’s publisher, Mr. Niles, had urged her to write a “book for girls.”

She wrote in her journal of that year: “I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls, or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it. Sent twelve chapters to Mr. N. He thought it dull; so do I. But I work away and mean to try the experiment; for lively, simple books are very much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need.”

The book was based on John Bunyan’s allegorical adventure, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” with a female twist.

Alcott had a gift for observation and humor. She used the intimate details of her own family life – she too had three sisters – to breathe life into the story of these four sisters and their mother.

Classic converted

According to Emma Reeves, there were many ways she could have approached the adaptation of the well-loved tale.

“When I began my adaptation, I considered many dramatic techniques – should I present the whole story as a Christmas play performed by the Marches? Use ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ as a framing device? Incorporate Louisa Alcott’s true-life story? In the end I chose a multi-locational, fluid approach, consisting of many swiftly-moving scenes, which allows us to cut between locations in filmic style, whilst also using narration to directly address the audience. The script looks unconventional on the page, but it works.”

WICA director Deana Duncan talked about Reeves’ structure of the play.

“In this adaptation there are 44 scenes that are taken from the 44 chapters of the book,” Duncan said.

“It is not an easy play to do in that the scenes flow into each other without any blackouts. But these actors rise to the occasion and use the scenes beautifully,” she said.

The hardest part of directing this play for Duncan was getting the large cast together for rehearsals.

She estimates that in any given show at the theaters on Whidbey Island, volunteers donate about 100 to 120 hours per week just for rehearsals.

“That includes none of the extra at-home character study that goes into creating a role,” said Duncan.

These actors actually took a knitting class together, she said, in order to emulate the tasks that were so predominant in their lives.

“I’m always so amazed that in every show they are able to pull it off time and time again. The volunteer talent on this island is simply amazing,” she said.

“We have an absolutely wonderful cast for this show,” actor Amy Walker said.

“And Deana is a truly excellent director. She has the ability to recognize a good idea immediately, no matter who suggests it. She’s great,” Walker added.

Walker plays Jo, who like her creator, is fiercely intelligent and tomboyishly courageous.

“Jo is the most exhausting and challenging role I’ve ever taken on. But I love how everything is life or death for Jo; how she feels the potency of every minute,” said Walker. “It’s a real challenge to be able to hit all the emotional high points of someone who goes from age 15 to 25 in a two-hour show.”

Walker said that as an actor it is a tremendous gift to have a whole, incredible classic book to refer to for the role.

“I had never read the book before taking this role. Now my copy is dog-eared,” she said.

She also praised the set by designer Jack Green for reflecting the lyrical quality of the play while still remaining simple.

The WICA production also

takes advantage of the musical history of the Alcott family who, like many genteel families of that period, sang often around their piano in the evenings.

The Alcott family home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Louisa Alcott and her sisters most likely knew many of the spirituals that were a part of the culture of the southern slaves.

Duncan chose to include some spirituals as part of the “living sound track” in this production, though some of the songs are not included in the original script.

Duncan mused on what she would like theater goers to walk away with after seeing “Little Women.”

“I’d love it if it inspires audiences to feel thankful for what we have here on this island. The expression ‘keep the home fires burning’ actually was coined during the Civil War era. In these times, during this holiday season, I would love it if people thought of just that; keeping family close,” she said.

“Oh, and I hope it makes them want to read the book again, too!”

“Little Women” plays at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Dec. 1 – 16 and 2 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 3 and 10.

Call 221-8268 or www.WICAonline.com.

Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or www.pduff@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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