First Folio's adaptation of 'Little Women' an endearing testament to sisterhood, artistic spirit

“Little Women” - ★ ★ ★/h3>

“Little Women,” which commences around Christmas, is not a yuletide tale per se, but it is a gift that keeps on giving. Louisa May Alcott's semi-autobiographical, Civil War-set novel about the March sisters has inspired more than a dozen film and TV versions along with numerous stage adaptations including Marian de Forest's play, which opened on Broadway in 1912 and was last revived in 1945 and a 2005 Broadway musical starring Sutton Foster and Maureen McGovern by lyricist Mindi Dickstein and composer Jason Howland that closed after four months. There's also a 1969 ballet and a 1998 opera.

Now comes Heather Chrisler's considered, warmhearted adaptation premiering at First Folio Theatre more than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered its 2020 premiere a week before it was supposed to open. Initially, Chrisler's play struck me as a kind of Cliffs Notes overview, designed to whet an audience's appetite for Alcott. I couldn't help thinking the 100-minute, intermissionless show would make an ideal introduction to the novel for middle school students.

Shelby Bias plays budding writer Jo March in First Folio Theatre's premiere of "Little Women" directed by Melanie Keller. Courtesy of Tom McGrath

But as the show unfolded, it became clear this was no cursory take. While “Little Women” remains an endearing testament to sisterhood and the power of women to sustain and inspire each other, Chrisler's version emerges as a heartwarming portrait of a budding artist, one determined to express herself despite the obstacles she faces because of her gender - obstacles female and female-identifying artists still face today.

Conceived for four actresses (three of whom double as the significant men in the sisters' lives), First Folio's production stars Stephanie Fongheiser as levelheaded Meg; Shelby Bias plays the high-spirited, self-reliant Jo, an aspiring writer who pens fantastical tales her sisters act out; Jamie Herb is sweet-tempered homebody Beth; and Esther Fishbein is Amy, the selfish youngster who matures over the course of the play into an insightful young woman.

The March sisters Meg (Stephanie Fongheiser), left, Beth (Jamie Herb), Jo (Shelby Bias) and Amy (Esther Fishbein) act out one of Jo's adventure tales in the attic of their Massachusetts home in First Folio Theatre's "Little Women." Courtesy of Tom McGrath

The beloved Marmee and Father and the crotchety Aunt March are mentioned but don't appear. The men in the sisters' lives appear in cameo roles. John Brooke, the poor tutor who courts and marries Meg, is played by Fishbein. Fongheiser plays the solicitous German professor Friedrich Bhaer, whose advice to Jo to write what she knows “from your beautiful spirit” helps unlock her talent. Only the genial Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (a disarming, authentic Herb), grandson of the family's wealthy neighbor who becomes Jo's friend and later, her unwanted suitor, gets significant stage time.

The stakes, with one exception, aren't very high, but Chrisler's well-paced narrative incorporates the novel's highlights: the Christmas ball where Jo meets and dances with Laurie (a deliciously comic scene); the sweetly amusing and subtly satirical meeting of The Pickwick Club, the sisters' secret literary society; Meg's marriage; Jo's rejection of Laurie; Beth's understated yet effective death.

Most of the action takes place in the attic, Angela Weber Miller's cozy, book-filled, exquisitely detailed sanctuary where the sisters dream, quarrel, reconcile and where they are fully themselves, especially Jo, who chafes under society's constraints.

Shelby Bias, left, plays Jo and Jamie Herb plays her best friend Laurie in "Little Women," running through Jan. 15 at First Folio Theatre. Courtesy of Tom McGrath

Director Melanie Keller's production has a big heart and lots of charm. It's underscored by wry whimsy evidenced in the ice skating scene where Jo and Laurie glide across the ice waving white streamers. It's apparent in an increasingly frantic monologue (artfully delivered by Fongheiser), which finds newlywed Meg attempting (and failing) to make jam, a process symbolized by her awkward attempts to juggle purple scarves. And it's cleverly expressed in Amy's monologue during which the perceptive young woman acknowledges her limited artistic talent. Blowing up a red balloon, she ties it off and sets it aside. She inflates and releases other balloons, all of them deflate and drop to the ground, evidence that desire alone does not an artist make.

Location: First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067,

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 15. Also 3 p.m. Dec. 29, Jan. 5 and 12. No 8 p.m. show Dec. 24, no show Dec. 25

Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $44-$59

Parking: In adjacent lot

COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination and masks required

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