Almost 150 years ago, author Louisa May Alcott penned a story that became an instant classic. Little Women, a fictional portrait of herself and her three sisters growing up in the Civil War and after, has been a best-seller ever since its first printing.
Now, LA playwright Velina Hasu Houston has turned the well-loved novel into a play — giving it “a multicultural transposition” along the way. The Civil War is now World War II, recently ended; and the March family is now the Mayedas, returning to LA after nearly three years imprisoned at Manzanar internment camp.
They are Japanese on the father’s side, Chinese on the mother’s. His heritage got them sent Manzanar; but Chinese culture now exerts more impact, as their mother’s well-to-do aunt gives them a place to start over — the pool house of her Leimert Park home.
Their new neighbors are a black doctor and his grandson, the US Supreme Court having just struck down racial covenants in housing (Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948). Everyone has to adjust, giving up fears and preconceptions — and some traditions.
In this new world, the Mayeda family’s abiding concern is the same as in the novel: whom — and whether — the “little women” will marry. As in the original, feisty Jo asserts a woman’s right to pursue a career, while gentle Beth remains an unmarried homebody and dies young. Amy weds the neighbor’s grandson, Meg marries his Pakistani tutor, and Jo at last pledges herself to a Latin American writer she meets in New York.
The multiracial, polycultural mix of modern Los Angeles thus transforms the “look” of this Little Women. But Houston’s play also deals more directly with the surrounding world’s issues. Alcott’s own family were fiercely committed abolitionists, taking part in the (illegal) Underground Railroad — yet slavery appears only by implication in her novel, like a silhouette on a backdrop. Houston’s characters directly address and argue about the social issues they find themselves in the midst of — including the father’s battle with alcohol, a kind of “war wound” not acknowledged in Alcott’s time.
Still, this Little Women remains true to the original’s gently sentimental style. It’s not Raisin in the Sun or Allegiance, though it dwells in the same era; like the novel, the play moves rapidly past its moments of conflict, and finds a happy resolution to each strand of its story (except, of course, Beth’s).
Playwrights’ Arena, which has nurtured the script, gives it a straightforward production. Irene Choi’s spare scenic design uses a chair or two, a table, and mobile panels to define the playing spaces through which Derek Jones’ lighting leads us seamlessly. Matthew Richter’s sound evokes the period, and Mylettte Nora’s costumes flesh it out.
Director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps things focused and moving, and he and the cast manage to show us the characters’ cultures — and unwitting prejudices — without falling into stereotype. Nina Harada’s smart, passionate Jo steals the spotlight (she is, after all, the narrator). The members of her nuclear family balance her as a group, rather than individually.
As the mother, Sharon Omi brings weight to every moment (minus the bad temper that features in the novel); Ken Narasaki provides a loving, wise father who’s immobilized by what we now recognize as PTSD. Jennifer Chang creates a luminous Meg, the family beauty and peacemaker; Jacqueline Misaye’s Beth emerges credibly from shy isolation into her music; and Rosie Narasaki takes Amy from a whiny youngest to a self-possessed artist.
The folks outside the nuclear family hold the stage opposite Jo more easily. Karen Huie, as the generous but traditional Auntie Ming, nicely works her way from fearful indignation to a happier flexibility. Rif Hutton, as the neighbor, Ken Ivy, as his grandson, and Peter Pasco, as the writer, each bring formidable presence and clarity to their scenes. And Jeremiah Caleb’s Mr. Bhat gives a light comic touch to his courtship of Meg.
Alcott, writing to support her starving sisters and parents, shrewdly targeted her novel to the emerging market of “young woman” readers. Houston and Playwrights’ Arena shrewdly bring their Little Women to its climax in a family Christmas scene — just in time for the holidays. And it’s good holiday fare: light, but well seasoned and pleasing.
Little Women, by Velina Hasu Houston, from Louisa May Alcott’s novel.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at the Chromolume Theatre, 5429 Washongton Blvd., LA 90016.
Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
through November 20th.