Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott, adapted by Marcy Kahan

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Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott, dramatized by Marcy Kahan (1993). Dir. Marilyn Imrie. Perf. Gayle Hunnicutt, Jemma Redgrave, Buffy Davis. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 12 Jan.- 16 Feb. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 15 Mar. 2015.

Listening to this charming production of Louisa May Alcott's classic, I couldn't help but be reminded of Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Not a lot happens in the production, but it is nonetheless affecting in its reaffirmation of family values at a time of profound socio-political change. Mid-nineteenth century East Coast America was a society in flux, as the largely English-descended families tried to carve out a comfortable life for themselves at a time when women had limited prospects other than to be marriageable material or serve as governesses.

Marilyn Imrie's production was very much an ensemble piece, with all the March girls having their turn in the aural limelight. Marmee (Gayle Hunnicutt) assumed a controlling presence; she did not try to determine her daughters'; lives, but she was always there to offer advice whenever necessary. Jo (Buffy Davis) had her moment of triumph as she rejected the advances of the would-be rake Laurie (Marcus d'Amico). The course of true love never did run smooth, as the German professor (Martin Jarvis) discovered as he tried and failed to suppress his passion. Yet matters were satisfactorily resolved at the end, as four out of the five sisters married and mourned the loss of Beth, a victim of an incurable disease.

Adapter Marcy Kahan made one or two significant changes; unlike the book, she dispensed with the idea of having Jo as narrator, so as to emphasize the ensemble nature of the piece. Kahan also invented a comic deathbed scene involving Aunt March (Margaret Robertson), who insisted she was at death's door, even though the doctors insisted she was perfectly well. Her attitude offered an ironic commentary on the limited opportunities available for women at that time; if they were not married, or widowed, they had little or no future. They could only crawl towards death. Nonetheless Aunt March's cynicism had its positive side, as she bequeathed Plumfield, her family estate, to Jo and the Professor.

The production's emphasis on family values might have seemed a little archaic in today's world, but it was nonetheless refreshing to hear a production whose entire cast was predominantly women.