Get “crumples in [your] dress” when you see the moving ‘Little Women’ with loved ones

Theatre Cedar Rapids presents: Little Women

Brucemore, Cedar Rapids -- through June 6; $25-100

The March sisters goofing around. — Benjamin Stuben Farrar/Theatre Cedar Rapids

As my tablemates and I arrived at Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Little Women at Brucemore, I could feel a crispness in the air. The rainy sky had opened to let the sun out just as we rolled up into the drive. The stage, covered with a painted backdrop of the interior of the March house, skewed almost fishbowl lens-like, as if we were sitting in a mouse hole, looking out into the warmth of the March sisters’ quaint and threadbare home. We settled in at our corner table and, after opening our wine, crackers and cheese, my friends and I felt set in our collective “safe space”: the theater.

I must admit, I had nerves going to my first outdoor theater performance since being vaccinated. Would I feel safe? Would my body find some slack of relaxation, to feel comfortable enough to take my mask off and take in this world that playwright Heather Chrisler, director Saffron Henke and crew had worked so hard to present? Would I be able to lose myself and my worries, become completely engulfed in the March sisters’ world?

Up for the challenge, the spunky March sisters introduced their world, pulling down the and allowing us into the space, designer Benjamin Stuben Farrar’s walls and floor painted in teals and greens, drawing me deeper into the “stage within a stage” where the young women would posture and play. Throughout the show, they pull top hats, canes, capes and play swords from the trunks and closets, hidden worlds of play within their home, and show us what fun four sisters with big imaginations and even bigger dreams can muster. Stuben Farrar’s set had so many surprises in store. I was delighted with each new cupboard and wardrobe reveal, each an adventure, stocked with inspiration.

We meet Jo stomping and leaping, played by the feisty Mackenzie Elsbecker. Her energy onstage is palpable. Clad in green, her heavy skirts shift swiftly as she transforms into the dreaded pirate “Captain Bartholomew”—she points her “sword” toward her sisters, who take up their own “weapons” as an epic sea battle ensues. The girls and the audience are transfixed on this gruesome monster of glee that Jo manifests. Jo has one goal in life: to be a great writer. Elsbecker shines most when she shows Jo’s freedom and bravado.

The world is loud, playful and fierce, yet within the pirate battle Beth, played gracefully by Noel VanDenBosch, checks in on her fallen “pirate” sisters, even when she may be the victor of the play fights. In her blue skirts, ever the caretaker, Beth would never want to actually harm her beloved sisters. This detail was sweet and formative of the Beth I would see throughout the night.

Lily Gast’s Amy, the youngest March sister, is precocious and striving to be a “proper lady,” even correcting her brashest sister Jo to not say slang like “jolly” or “blast,”—yet showing her youth in saying “it’s practicularitally unbearable” when lamenting the war that their father is away fighting. The playwright is deft at painting a picture of Amy—the artist herself—as the sister most dreamy, most caught up in the beauty of the world, or what she perceives it to be. Amy’s perception is cast in rose colored glasses, just like her peachy pink skirts. Lily Gast has a transformative power onstage. She moves between her characters with full commitment, taking on accents and character arcs with ease. As Amy gets older and wiser, Gast brings a visible shift to Amy. You see her corsets tightening her stature (although the actresses were not corseted in costume, which is some pretty impressive movement work, emboldened I’m sure by assistant director/movement coach Megan Robinson) as she ages and gains years of life experiences in the shift of a scene.

The cast of ‘Little Women.’ — Benjamin Stuben Farrar/Theatre Cedar Rapids

Costume designer Joni Sackett’s work is gorgeous, particularly Amy’s Paris dress. I am transported to the time, and I appreciate the care in the bits and pieces: gloves, hats and heavy underskirts, each bolstering the story. During an ice skating scene, the scratch of the shoes on the pavement mimic the sound of skates on an icy lake. I can almost see their faces reddened with winter chill.

Practical sister Meg, in purple, is resolute and driven. Erin Grams plays the eldest March sister with the confidence and timelessness of a woman on the brink of a life change. When the sisters recite letters to their Marme (mother), navigating married life and what it means to be a wife, we see Meg’s urgency and feel that bubbling of stress and the literal “spinning” emotional rollercoaster it can be. Giving the writer and director their due credit as well, Grams shows that surface tension—trying to save face while in turmoil, that push and pull within herself as Meg flails—with masterful performance. The scene is fantastic, a literal circus act, making the audience rapt with anticipation to see what will happen next. When things were literally spinning out of control, Grams met each obstacle and continued on.

Continuing in this story, one that is familiar but presented in a fully new way, we are met with some pretty incredible character changes. After sweet Beth leaves with her doll (who is almost a fifth actor in the show), VanDenBosch returns as the jaunty, gallant Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. After an impossible quick change, VanDenBosch brings a fully new energy to the stage as Laurie, masculine and cheeky. Laurie is well-loved by all the March sisters, as his attention shifts from sister to sister, depending on life’s circumstances. VanDenBosch is sexy and charming as Laurie, a stark difference to her portrayal of Beth, who tugs at your heartstrings in a different way. Both characters are shown with grace and honesty. There is one transition that I can not stop thinking about, in which Beth’s doll sits in place of Beth, that is so swift and beautiful. Some of the heavier topics are effortlessly presented using simple props: a doll, embroidery hoops, the March sisters’ imaginary world manifested.

The charms of Laurie. — Benjamin Stuben Farrar/Theatre Cedar Rapids

As the audience sees the traumas that unfold in the sisters’ lives, the grief is sometimes devastating. The safe March home feels empty. When the sisters all leave Beth, we feel her struggle of loneliness and wish they all could be together again, supporting each other. We are tethered as an audience, blowing wildly in the wind, like balloons that magically float midair on the stage as the sisters grow further and further apart.

When they gather for happy times, like Meg’s wedding, she asks for hugs saying she “wants great many crumples of that sort in her dress” and I am reminded of the hugs I have been having the pleasure of receiving lately, after so long. As Jo realizes her stories of adventure and whim are not the only beauty that needs to be recorded for an audience, I’m reminded that life is not pretty sometimes. Reality is messy, life is sometimes devastating and vile, but it is living.

After the night fell, and the show ended, Brucemore buzzed with sounds from the trees and lake. The audience buzzed with collective joy and reverence. The sisters remind us that support and understanding of each other is the only way to get through life’s tough times. I got many sweet crumples of hugs in my dress. Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Little Women brought life into an old story, and reintroduced the theatre as a safe space to hold all the emotions: seeing love and strife, delightful and raw.

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Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of Little Women runs through June 6. TCR has been adding performances, but they continue to sell out fast. Tickets are $25 for individual seats, $100 for a four-person table.