This play by Lillian Hellman is rarely revived, and it’s worth making some effort to see this production of it, if Hellman is one of your favorites. It’s not her best play, but it is full of the good story telling for which she was famous, for its craft, for its awareness of what keeps an audience interested for, in this case, almost three hours with intermission.
A prequel to her far more successful The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest is set in Bowden, Alabama in June 1880, twenty years prior to the time of The Foxes. Foxes’ three siblings from hell have retrogressed to their 20s – Regina the youngest, Oscar the middle child, Ben the eldest, all three as conniving and corrupt as they are twenty years later when they all land at Regina Hubbard Giddens’ home in a small Alabama town in which she lives with her husband Horace and their daughter Alexandra. The younger siblings are still thick as thieves, constantly maneuvering for control – Ben owns a men’s shop, Oscar works for him, so does Oscar’s profligate son Leo. Regina is a housewife, with ample help from the recently freed slaves, which gives her lots of time to plot and plan for a more interesting and affluent future, independent of the largesse of her brothers and her husband.
Forest is Hellman’s attempt to show us how her three Foxes control freaks got to be that way. It only partially succeeds, for in the prequel they are all three fully formed, so it’s a little like The Little Foxes played by a very young cast. The additions are Lavinia and Marcus Hubbard, the parents of the trio, and Birdie Bagtry, their insecure and dominatable neighbor and her cousin Captain John Bagtry whom Regina covets. Bagtry, however wisely, sets her straight. It ain’t gonna happen; she’s not his kind of woman. He tells her off (very much the way Ashley Wilkes told off Scarlett O’Hara under similar circumstances). Birdie, on the other hand, will be bartered off to Oscar, who thinks he would have preferred Laurette Sincee, a town tart who doesn’t really love him either. As Marcus has been totally in control of Lavinia for 34 years, offering meaningless promises to her about helping her form a school for black children, we do enjoy watching this big bully crumble as his attempt to fight his three kids who are out to replace him only ends in disaster.
Hellman, though far more experienced and highly regarded in 1946 that she’d been in 1939 when The Little Foxes opened, raised the stakes in her prequel and came up with something closer to melodrama than drama. Her people are big, but there isn’t much dimension to them. Ben is Bad, Regina is Conniving and Artful, Oscar is Weak and Foolish, Birdie is Scared and Sad, Papa Marcus is relentlessly Mean, and Mother Lavinia is Addled and Compromised – all of them from start to finish. Which doesn’t make their thickly plotted journey all that interesting.
But with a fine cast led by Sherman Howard as Marcus Hubbard, down to Ryah Nixon as Laurette Sincee (Oscar’s uninterested enamorata), this is a corker of a melodrama filled with colorful dialogue and well plotted one-upsmanship throughout.
Fluidly directed by Dan Wackerman for the Peccadillo Theater Company, Another Part of the Forest will run through July 3 at the comfortable 155 seat Theatre at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street here in New York.
For those who know and admire The Little Foxes this will be a particular treat. But for a friend who accompanied me, who had never seen Foxes, he’s now determined to, and wouldn’t you know? A revival of that one will be playing September 10 to October 17 at the New York Theatre Workshop. Ms. Hellman would have been pleased. Her Hubbards are once again all over town.