Is Amy the New Jo? Youth Theatre Northwest's 'Little Women'

3-29-13-littlewomenOne thing I’ve noticed about taking my daughters to theater: they absolutely light up with intellectual curiosity when they see young actors on stage.

Ages 7 and 9, they glow with rapt attention when anyone under the age of 19 walks the boards. My kids like to watch other kids. So, not surprisingly my elementary school giraffes adored the Youth Theatre Northwest production of Little Women how could they not? The entire cast and crew of this surprisingly satisfying gem was born after 1993.

Truth be told, being an eternal English major, I envisioned my evening at the theater with the girls as an inspired set-up for a wonderful “teachable moment” about the nascence of woman’s rights in United States history and the importance of Louisa May Alcott in the germination of the suffrage movement.

But I was unprepared for the actual theater experience. Supported by production team of seasoned professionals led by Youth Theatre Northwest's Artistic Director Mimi Katano, the cast of Little Women is a tight ensemble, polished, professional and above all clearly talented young people.

Despite their age, these seasoned thespians were able to convey a complex dynamic between sisters Amy, Beth, Jo, and Meg — the emotional armature of the story, which strangely I hadn’t really contemplated until I saw it performed by 15-year-old Juliette Levy (Amy), 16-year-old Anais Gralpois (Beth), 15-year-old Emma Bentsen (Jo), and 17-year-old Brynne Henry (Meg).

Staged with a sort of genteel ingenuity that seems appropriate for Louisa May Alcott's drama set during the Civil War era, the production is subtle, yet clever. From the needlepoint sampler scrim that functions as curtain, to the lovely use of choral music and hymn sung live by the cast — these thoughtful details lend the production a stark elegance that pays homage to the text.

This adaption of Little Women, by Sandra Fenichel Asher, spans the first part of the novel, where the March family is left fatherless and fortuneless, and more or less left to fend for themselves during the Civil War. It's a fairly accurate condensation of the first year in Alcott’s book with a clear focus on the oldest pair of sisters Jo and Meg’s coming of age during the crisis of the Civil War. Straightforward stuff.

The twist in this production is that younger set of sisters, Beth and Amy, really steal the show. So much so, that when I asked my children who their favorite sisters were they said not Jo and Meg, but Amy and Beth!

Even more telling, when I asked them to think of their favorite scene, my youngest daughter chose when Amy throws Jo’s manuscript in the fire. What? And yet, I agree with her assessment: Juliette Levy does Amy’s tween angst spot on. She is riveting.

To me this reversal of focus from Jo and Meg to Amy and Beth is a sign of some cultural shift.

Jo, as much as I idolize her as a feminist icon, has become a stock character in our culture. Wild spirited, longing for adventure, Jo is easily recognizable in all of my kids’ favorite animated movies; Merida from Brave, Rapunzel from Tangled, Arrietty from The Borrowers' adaptation The Secret of Arrietty – they all share the spirit of Jo.

And Meg who is really the little girl playing mother — she’s Wendy from Peter Pan, the virgin mother, one of our society’s most pervasive archetypes. And in her pleasant passivity she is a perfect foil for Jo, or the hero of any romantic comedy.

But Amy, the youngest, impetuously filled with rage, who struggles with her selfishness, or Beth who struggles with shyness and is so empathic to suffering that she brings suffering upon herself willingly — these characters have not yet been over exposed in popular culture. And yet, because their conflicts are more internal they might be more relevant to today’s youth.

Perhaps, the characters of Beth and Amy show us how feminism has turned inward and back, and the issues that young women struggle with today are not about repression but depression, and not about breaking conventions but about setting boundaries.

These accomplished young actresses (all students of Youth Theatre Northwest's drama program) have turned my preconceived notions of Little Women topsy-turvy and inadvertently bolstered my respect for good theater’s transcendence of the printed page. For that I say, “Well played, ladies!”

If you go ...

When and where: Little Women runs through March 24, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., at Youth Theatre Northwest, Mercer Island.

Tickets and info: Buy online. Tickets are $13-$17, and there are two deals: Tickets for teens are just $8; and there is a 2-for-1 deal for kids (plus a free concession, too)

Ages: Recommended for ages 9 and up

Resources: Check out Youth Theatre Northwest's Summer Camps and Classes. YTN's Summer Stock auditions for Grades 3-12 are March 17-20 and March 27.

arf-croppedAbout the author:
Annie Fanning is a mother of two brilliant daughters, a Seattle Tree Ambassador, and a flower-throwing anarchist. In addition to being a contributing writer, she is also on ParentMap's editorial staff.

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