Theatre Calgary’s Little Women is not a classic telling. But that is an unexpected gift.

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Are there things that you expect when you think of the story behind Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women? You probably expect a fiery and imaginative Jo, who constantly is in conflict with the youngest sister Amy. Maybe a loving Marmee and the peacemaker Beth would be almost serene.

Theatre Calgary’s production of Little Women is written and adapted by Kate Hamill and though it takes from Alcott’s original story, it takes some creative license. This adaptation spins Jo’s refusal to marry Lori and makes it something different, not just a misinterpretation of their relationship.

The basis of the story is still aligned with the original. The setting is 1861 – 1864 in New England. Marmee March (Tara Beagan) is a loving mother of 4 daughters whose husband, Robert March (Christopher Hunt) is off fighting the war. The family doesn’t have a lot of money, but still tries to give to those who are less fortunate then them. Jo (Dean Stockdale) and Laurie (Bernardo Pacheco) become great friends and both the March family and Laurence family connect as neighbours and friends. Meg (Vanessa Leticia Jetté) is courted by Laurie’s tutor, John Brooks (Devin Mackinnon), while Beth (Rebbekah Ogden) doesn’t attend school because of her health and Amy (Heidi Damayo) is wildly indignant about having to go to school and generally being the youngest of the family. Robert March (Christopher Hunt) does eventually grace the stage, but has no lines and Hannah the housekeeper (Kathryn Kerbes) is light character amongst the heavy themes in the narrative.

Beth Kates has created a projection design that covers the set designed by Andy Moro. It features beautiful backdrops and Moro’s set moves on stage to set the play in March family home or in the Laurie’s home. Kates’s design also helps to tell the story, with flames projected on the screens to suggest something that wasn’t said on stage. There are aspects of the set that look a little cartoonish, like the snow drifts, but overall the set combined with Whittyn Jason’s costume design and Alessandro Juliani’s original music and sound design create the atmosphere of Little Women.

This version of Little Women deals with Meg experiencing postpartum depression and Jo feeling not comfortable with the expectations of her as a woman in society. This is a version of Little Women that is inclusive to young people who are members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community and this version goes deeper into some of the very real pain of not being able to be what is expected.

It brings some light to these issues and allows for some poignant performances, especially for Jetté when she explains her struggle with being a new mother and the impact on her marriage. Stockdale illustrates Jo’s pain beautifully. This is a play that takes a classic and brings in a lens of equity and diversity, and we need more narratives like this. These kind of stories and adaptations gives audiences a chance to embody this viewpoint and in a world of extremes, art is a healing practice.

There are some awkward choices in this production, including a live parrot (MacKinnon) for Aunt March (Beagan). It seems to be out of step with the rest of the production, though the parrot does provide laughs. It is also a bit of an awkward choice for director Jenna Rodgers to have Amy and Jo be so adversarial and constantly shouting at each other, though it may have been in the script. It meant that the audience didn’t really like Amy in the end or struggled to see her point of view and this was a tough dynamic for a play that really centers on family relationships. The play also makes an odd choice to bring Robert back from the war, but he never says anything and just walks across the stage in the second half. It is a miss in this adaptation.

Theatre Calgary’s Little Women is their holiday production, after decades of producing A Christmas Carol. It is to be applauded that they didn’t choose to produce a classic version of Little Women. With the number of anti-trans legislation being passed in the States, we should hear stories that are inclusive to the trans community. That’s an amazing holiday gift.

Theatre Calgary’s Little Women plays until December 31st. More information is available online.

Photo credit: Trudie Lee

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