Little Sisters, Tall Fences

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.


In Chapter 46 of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, the character of Jo thinks to herself, "What do girls do who haven't any mothers to help them through their troubles?" In her play The Sisters Rosensweig, written a mere 121 years after Little Women, Wendy Wasserstein makes the answer quite clear: simply gather in your sister's posh London sitting room for two days trading wisecracks and soon your troubles will be gone.

Wasserstein died at the age of 55 earlier this year, and The Old Globe's gilded production of Sisters provides a welcome opportunity to revisit her work. Directed by David Warren, this staging showcases the best elements of Wasserstein's writing, namely her sense of humor, her ability to write bold, colorful characters, and most famously, her ability to dramatize the plight of modern, educated women. This revival also does not (or cannot) hide Wasserstein's shortcomings as a dramatist. Her sentimentality, her reliance on sit-com style gags, and her predilection to introduce a fascinating intellectual idea, only to use it as a name-brand or punchline.

The Sisters Rosensweig was written 15 years ago and the troubles her three middle-aged sisters face (such as surviving divorces, still being single, and still being married) continue to resonate today, yet the play as a whole feels dated--like a rerun of a classic TV episode from seasons past.

Wasserstein's craft is such that the show still delights and occasionally dazzles, but it's not what's unexpected or prescient about the play that makes it pleasurable. Instead the comfort of The Sisters Rosensweig comes mainly from its familiarity.

A musical version of Alcott's Little Women, currently playing in Hollywood, aspires to a similar form of nostalgia. The authors of this spectacle try to conjure warm feelings about the bonds of sisterhood, but unlike Wasserstein's gals, these sisters don't come alive on stage. The four March girls now seem like a homogenous bunch--the only reason Jo stands out is that Alcott's story has been turned into an inspirational vehicle about becoming a writer. Maureen McGovern's plummy voice adds some flavor to the character of Marmee, but the pop ballads evoke neither 19th century New England nor the playful struggles of youth.

Little Women was the last show to play on Broadway at the Virginia Theatre before it was renamed the August Wilson Theatre two weeks after the playwright's death last October. Since Wilson's passing, theaters everywhere are rushing to revive his work. The Signature Theatre Company in New York is devoting their entire season to Wilson, and here in Los Angeles, two companies are mounting the playwright's most successful show, Fences.

The Pasadena Playhouse is putting up Fences next month, but the Odyssey Theatre is currently hosting a small production that started at the Actor's Studio. This Fences, directed by Jeffery Hayden, is tribute to the power of Wilson's art--and the power of rehearsal. Prior to its month-long engagement at the Odyssey, it played for six weeks at the Tiffany as a sort of open workshop. The result of this effort is an ensemble that's rock solid. The sets may be makeshift, the music and lighting unsubtle, but the acting is first-rate

The role of Troy Maxson, a former Negro league slugger, toiling as a garbage man in the 1950's, is one of Wilson's greatest creations. James Earl Jones originated the role 20 years ago and it would seem impossible to fill these spikes. Amazingly, Charlie Robinson--best known as Mac, on TV's Night Court--makes the role entirely his own. His warm, ferocious and tragic portrayal of a decent, fair, but deeply flawed father makes the play's three-plus hours swing by. All of the actors are strong, but Robinson's turn is one of those rare performances that burns on stage even after the lights have gone down.

Fences runs through this Sunday at the Odyssey Theatre, Little Women also closes Sunday at the Pantages Theatre, The Sisters Rosensweig continues at the Old Globe in San Diego through August 20.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.