Arts & Culture

Lakewood Playhouse’s ‘Little Women’ is smooth but sometimes saccharine

Anyone looking for spicy action probably shouldn’t read Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Despite being an abolitionist and a feminist, Alcott also wrote for her time (1860s) and place (Massachusetts), describing a more-or-less idyllic family situation, and the book is a children’s classic precisely because it’s so sweet.

This is one of the problems with mounting a stage adaptation — the other being what gets cut. Neither problem is adequately solved in Lakewood Playhouse’s current production, but despite that, it’s an enjoyable show, thanks to some fine acting by both old Lakewood hands and fresh faces.

Most of that acting is done by just two women. “Little Women” stands or fails on the strength of the four sisters of the title as they move from childhood to adulthood, and director Suzy Wilhoft (at Lakewood for the first time) has made a fine choice in the elder two, who carry the bulk of the dialogue and plot. As the hotheaded tomboy Jo, Cassie Fastabend (recently Cecily at Lakewood’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”) crafted a magnificent blend of energy and emotion. With brisk tempo (sometimes too much so), Fastabend tore through Jo’s theatrics, plans and dreams like a firework — yet she handled Jo’s deep, sometimes despairing scenes with conviction. Countering her as the oldest sister, Meg, was Laura Strong, who is new to Lakewood. Strong brought the role a fresh honesty that transformed this usually boring character into a girl who’s shyly contending with her own desires and her family’s needs.

Sadly, that’s where the March family strengths stopped. As the sickly Beth, Marissa Tate had just one expression — saccharine cheerfulness — and Ashley Mowreader turned the spoiled Amy into a simpering dilettante. Carol Richmond was a believably concerned, but slightly too-old Mrs. March; Darrel Shiley’s Mr. March was hesitantly dull, and Virginia Yanoff needed to be even scarier as the complaining Aunt March. Despite Wilhoft’s smooth tempo, there was a lot of waiting-for-the-next-line delivery.

However, the Marches’ colleagues stepped up the pace. Joseph Grant was dignified yet kind as the neighbor Mr. Laurence, Syra Beth Puett made a handwringingly fussy Hannah, and Lakewood veteran Coleman Hagerman stepped out of his signature goofy-comic style to inject Laurie with a devastatingly honest passion. Lakewood director John Munn made a cameo as the German professor, bumbling but good-hearted.

Wilhoft, the former head of drama at Stadium High School with recent success in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Tacoma Little Theatre, handled Lakewood’s in-the-round staging with great skill, creating smooth but always-visible blocking and even investing the one scene change with dramatic emotion.

But the two problems remained. One was how this particular adaptation leaves out many action moments from the novel, like Mr. March’s return from the Civil War front, and Amy’s near-death in the frozen river. Even Beth’s illness comes out of nowhere.

The main issue, though, was the saccharine taste that only grew stronger — from Beth’s observations, to the ring-dance and song around each loving couple, to the final twitter from Beth’s robin. Like Jane Austen, Alcott writes phrases and scenes that work fine when read. Bringing them to life on stage is much trickier. But if you know that going in, then Lakewood Playhouse’s “Little Women” makes an enjoyable outing.