Covering 45 years in 75 minutes, “The Little Years” is a carefully structured warning about the dangers of repression. Beginning in the era when males were thought to be more worthy of higher education than females, playwright John Mighton paints a picture of a girl with a brilliant mathematical mind being forced into a clerical job. After all, marriage and homemaking were the ultimate aim for normal girls in 1950, weren’t they?
While misfit and scientific prodigy Kate (Tania Jacobs) grows into an emotionally warped and bitter adult, her brother, William — the focal point of general adulation, although he never appears onstage — goes on to a highly successful literary career.
The exploration of Kate’s wasted talent and the effects of that waste on her emotional and mental health are carefully laid out to chronicle how life’s path is determined very early and how it is spurred on by parental bias.
Spare and often poignant, “The Little Years” is delicately wrought and purposefully understated as it presents shifting perspectives beaten by the waves of time. For example, one generation after young Kate sat under a tree to work on her scientific theories, her niece takes the same pose under the same tree just before she heads off to university — the path that Kate so much wanted to take. The round of time and space is reflected in a revolving centerpiece that’s both a convenient way of changing sets and a metaphor for the fourth dimension.
William is the sun around whom his mother, sister, friend and daughter circle. Perhaps, in this galaxy, Kate should be seen as the Pluto who no longer rates as a planet because she doesn’t fit into the role expected of her by her mother and her era.
“The Little Years” is an effective dramatization of the power that one generation’s views have over another’s. (In part, the play — written a decade ago — might be viewed as promoting an organization that Mighton, a mathematician, poet and philosopher as well as a playwright, founded to help underprivileged children with mathematical potential.)
The revival is deftly directed by Leah Cherniak and well performed by a strong ensemble cast. “The Little Years” is cerebral, economical and oddly tranquil. Even so, it is not totally satisfying dramatically, perhaps because of the sense of inevitability that rules from the beginning.