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'Little Women' is a sweet, warm-hearted family treat

Libby Barnard is preternaturally perky as Jo, the central character in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," which opened Thursday night at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland in a feel-good adaptation by Marisha Chamberlain. As you see these girls of the Civil War era move toward maturation through a series of vignettes spanning months and years, your attention seldom strays far from the hyperkinetic Jo.

Under director Lisa Marie Malovoz's guidance, each of the young actors carves out a believable, if abbreviated, identity in the play's world, led by the ebullient Barnard. This is theater designed not to challenge, but to provide family-friendly holiday fare.

Alcott's story is a familiar one (there have been several film versions and a Broadway musical). The four March girls' father, a doctor, is away serving in the war, and the challenge for the girls is to grow up, to be little women.

Almost like characters in an allegory, each has her signature flaw. Jo's is her temper, although it's not usually much in evidence here as this Energizer Bunny of a teenager meets every challenge that comes her way with unflagging good cheer. Meg's (Sophia Palosaari) is vanity (considered a vice in the 19th century, when people didn't feel entitled to 15 minutes of fame). Poor, sickly Beth (Isabelle Schuler) is shy and socially awkward. Little Amy (Emily Elizabeth Bunten) is a brat (how could she not be spoiled, what with these relentlessly nice sisters).

We join the girls and their mother, their Marmee (Julie Excell), in their Concord, Mass., home at Christmastime. With Father (Sam King) gone, times are lean. But the plucky family members share their meager food with even poorer neighbors. And they in turn receive the unsought aid of their rich neighbors, Old Mr. Laurence (Larry Aerni) and his nephew Laurie (James David Larson) and Laurie's tutor, Brooke (Clinton Clark).

With no single conflict to drive it, the play is episodic. We see vignettes of sisterhood, friendship, goodwill, the requisite tragedy and the inevitable budding of romance. Everybody along the way is so gosh-darned nice to each other they make Ozzie and Harriet look like George and Martha from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The only random act of unkindness is committed by Amy in a moment of pique — and it's a whopper.

If there is a central theme it's Jo's decision to become a writer (Alcott based the tale on her own life). This is touched on here and there but never comes cleanly to the foreground.

The play gives us the feeling of something we've glimpsed through the windows on a fast-moving train that comes by, say, every few months. Wonder what those March gals are up to now?

The girls are sketches rather than fully developed. When there's a death it's kind of like an act of erasing, since we didn't really know the deceased. The whole thing gives you the feeling of having flashbacks as you flip through a family album.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The story has been seen as an undoubted classic by generations, and it will no doubt continue to have its partisans. It's timely as well, with its opening scene set in a season of hard times with Christmas approaching (how's that for resonance?). It is a warm, wistful look at a family as, perhaps, we wished all families were.

Its focus on the distaff side of the race will commend it to women and their girlchildren, as opening night testified, in search of a sweet, warm-hearted holiday treat.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

“Little Women,” from left: Beth (Isabelle Schuler), Meg (Sophia Palosaari), Jo (Libby Barnard) and Amy (Emily Elizabeth Bunten).