Lauren Shaffner and Christina Hawkinson were perfect strangers when they were cast to play the teenage and older version of Josephine "Jo" March in the play "Little Women."

After the two met at the read through for the first time, Hawkinson had doubts that they could portray the same person, especially because they don't look alike.

"I saw her blonde hair and blue eyes, and I'm obviously not that," said Hawkinson, who has black hair and brown eyes. "I thought how are we going to do this?"

They took it upon themselves to meet for coffee and get to know each other. Shaffner went the extra mile by dying her hair and eyebrows darker.

That was only the beginning of their efforts for the production of Louisa May Alcott's classic story, which opens Friday night at Albany Civic Theater.

Hawkinson said she studied Shaffner's mannerisms, tone and inflection during rehearsals, and tried to mimic those actions.

"We did talk, too, about gestures we could have in common or ways of moving. I think we initially tried to tune into what the other person was doing and finding common things we could play on," Shaffner said.

In this adaptation by Thomas Hischak, Josephine March (Hawkinson) is a narrator, now about 20 years older. She is a published author speaking in front of a forum, said director Karlissa Cornwell, who his making her directorial debut at Albany Civic Theater.

Josephine tells the story about how she and her sisters grew up and started their own families. The play switches between her narration and flashbacks to the past.

The story is set in the 1860s during the Civil War, and follows a close-knit family of the four March sisters and their mother, Marmee (Catherine Dorn), for nearly six years in their house. Their father (Mark Kinney) is off to war. The oldest daughter is Meg, played by Hannah Brunson, is the responsible one. Jo (Shaffner) is an independent tomboy.

Beth (Imogene Schwarz) is the sweet one, who is very sickly, Cornwell said. Amy is the youngest and begins the play as a spoiled brat, but becomes the most refined and wealthiest of the sisters as she grows older, Cornwell said. The young Amy is portrayed by Izzy Harwood and teen Amy is played by Alyssa Canwell.

The remaining members of the 25-person cast are Megan Dorn, Laurie Mason, Alyssa Canell, Jeff McMahon, Scotty Bowman, Amy MacRostie, Shiloah Hoskins, Josie Davis, Karlie Guilliot, Beatrice Bartholomew, Jasmin Hancock, Serena Callison, Olivia Kottre and Tom Martin.

Cornwell, who ran the drama program at Memorial Middle School in Albany for almost a decade, said it was important to her to have a cast and crew that included both adults and kids.

"I'm pretty passionate about getting youth involved in theater. This is not a youth show, but it has a great mix of youth and adults working together," she said.

Several cast members are appearing in their first production at Albany Civic Theater, including Hawkinson and Shaffner.

"Some of our lead roles are new to ACT and acting," Cornwell said.

Brunson and Schwarz have their first speaking roles in a play, and Canwell has never been on stage before, the director said.

"They have come huge leaps and bounds, so it's exciting to see them grow and see fresh blood at ACT," Cornwell said.

Most of the people in "Little Women" wanted to be involved, because of their love for a story they consider timeless.

"I had to be a part of it, whether it was in the background or whatever," Hawkinson said.

Cornwell said, "We had 76 people audition for a show with 25 actors, because it's well-known. We had a lot of teen girls audition, because they wanted to be Jo."

The director had high praise for Shaffner and Hawkinson.

"I think Jo and Josephine, especially, do a fantastic job of bringing that story to life," Cornwell said. "It's amazing to see two actresses who have never met up until a couple of months ago when they auditioned for the show, play the same person so well and connect with the audience."

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