Orchard House, the Concord home where Louisa May Alcott wrote her famous novel, “Little Women,’’ is celebrating 100 years as a museum, and keepers of the Alcott legacy have organized a “Little Women Spring.’’
The schedule of events features the eighth special presentation of “Little Women’’ by the Concord Players, which has been performing a locally written version of the story every 10 years since 1932, with the exception of 1942 because of World War II.
But the play’s return - in 12 performances starting April 27 and running through May 13 - is hardly the only event happening this centennial year.
“On March 10th, we’ll have a costume collection parade, showcasing the period costumes that belong to the Concord Players,’’ said Jill Henderson, vice president of the theater group.
“We’ll honor past and present Concord Players who have performed in ‘Little Women.’ One of our honored speakers will be Concord resident Fritz Kussin,’’ who is a descendent of Louisa May Alcott, she said.
Later in the spring there will be a series of lectures, including one titled “I Wanted to Be Just Like Jo,’’ the protagonist in Alcott’s semiautobiographical work, and another exploring the many film and stage versions of “Little Women.’’
“And then from May 18th to 20th we’ll do a continuous read-through of ‘Little Women’ at the Concord Public Library,’’ said Henderson.
But, of course, for the renowned local theater group, the play’s the thing.
Alcott had a direct connection to the Concord Players; in 1857 she and her sister Anna founded the group from which it evolved, when they started performing plays with friends and neighbors under the name “Concord Dramatic Union.’’
Although the Concord Players ensemble stages numerous performances throughout the year, ranging from drawing-room comedies to musicals, many of its actors and board members say that “Little Women’’ is the high point of the calendar when it rolls around. And even though 10 years may seem like a long interval between performances, some of the actors consider it a timeless commitment: Jan Turnquist will be taking the stage as Marmee for the third decade, and Kate Clarke, who played the lead role, Jo March, back in 1992, is this year’s director.
Turnquist, who is also the Orchard House’s executive director, noted that in the century since its founding, the museum has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world thronging to its humble threshold to pay tribute to the beloved writer.
“Louisa May Alcott’s writing as well as her down-to-earth spirit and strength have inspired so many people, and that’s the reason that her home holds such attraction,’’ Turnquist said.
“The house itself isn’t fascinating; the important thing is that it’s the place where she not only wrote ‘Little Women’ but also set the story,’’ which is a fictionalized version of the lives of Louisa and her family during the Civil War era.
As a museum staff member, Turnquist has heard countless stories of the influence Alcott holds over people throughout the world, she said.
“A woman visiting from Korea told me that ‘Little Women’ saved her life not once but twice. She read it as a girl, and the character of Jo March inspired her to be strong and independent in a way that Korean society did not necessarily instill in her. Then as an adult, circumstances left her suddenly a single mother. She thought back to ‘Little Women’ and read it again, this time focusing on the character of Marmee and how she raised her daughters on her own with spirit and courage.
“I hear versions of that story from people all over the world,’’ said Turnquist.
And not just from women, Turnquist emphasized. “Men sometimes tell me that while they might not feel comfortable talking about it, they love ‘Little Women’ because of the sense of family loyalty and friendship it conveys, the message that people are more important than things.
“I think those are all elements of why the book has remained so popular ever since its first publication in 1868, and in so many different cultures and countries.’’
Director Clarke confesses that as a girl growing up in Concord in the 1970s - one of four daughters, just like Alcott and Jo March - she wasn’t nearly as interested in “Little Women’’ as one of her sisters was.
“I found it a little bit sentimental, and I didn’t pay it much attention,’’ she said. That changed in 1992 when she was tapped to play the part of Jo.
“I reread the book, and this time the character really resonated with me. I was intrigued by her tomboy image.’’
Although Clarke’s theatrical pursuits turned from acting toward directing, her interest in Alcott held fast.
The version of “Little Women’’ being performed this year was written in 1982 by playwright David Fielding Smith, a Shirley resident and a teacher at Lawrence Academy in Groton. He was commissioned by the Concord Players to improve upon the script they had used since 1932.
“Preparing to direct the play, I started to do some research and was fascinated to discover just how meaningful the book is to so many people,’’ Clarke said.
“Even the rock star Patti Smith wrote in her recent memoir that ‘Little Women’ was what made her feel as a young high school student that she could be an artist. It motivated her to go to New York and become a performer. I started thinking, ‘Good Lord, Jo March is everywhere! Why do people find her so compelling?’
“That’s the question I’ve been tackling with this group of actors. Yes, it’s about the Civil War era, and the societal restrictions that females were under at that time. But the fact that the book’s popularity has endured reflects what compelling characters these young women were.
“This story is so uniquely Concord and yet reaches far beyond the boundaries of Concord, just as it is a story about the 1860s that also brings up a lot of contemporary issues,’’ Clarke said.
“It is a wonderful way to look at the layers of love that growing up requires.’’