The Little Foxes is at once an old-fashioned melodrama and a biting critique, seemingly written for today, of the hotly resented “1 percent”.
The play’s set up and mechanics feel like an old-time curio at times, or a look into the past, but is also unmistakably and curiously relevant to the socio-political discourse of this election year.
Directed by former associate artistic director Kyle Donnelly, the well-acted, above-average revival is a protracted gaze at cruelty and greed. The Hubbards are like bedeviled subjects exhibited behind a glass, wired to tear each other up for our pleasure—the scheming and plotting builds an entertaining suspense—before serving as a finger-wagging lesson to go out and denounce their example.
Yes, The Little Foxes is an enduring morality play. Written by left-wing playwright Lillian Hellman in 1939, and set in the Deep South of 1900, the play eviscerates the rich and those striving to be rich with an unmitigated scorn. Hellman stabs at both the past—with constant reminders of the historical injustices imposed on blacks and women—and the future with moments such as the reprobate villain Ben Hubbard’s crystal-ball declaration that the world is “Open for people like you and me. … All their names aren’t Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country someday.”
At the heart of the story is the relationship between siblings Ben (Edward Gero), Oscar (Gregory Linington) and Regina (Marg Helgenberger). These three prizes reveal that no price in human wreckage is high enough to deter them from personal profit. An offer from a Chicago industrialist to build a local mill promises to drive their fortunes to unprecedented heights, and the plot is off to the races.
Victims to this trio’s designs include Regina’s dying husband Horace (Jack Willis), who holds a critical sum necessary for the investment; her innocent daughter Alexandra (Megan Graves); and Oscar’s tragic wife Birdie (Isabel Keating), a faded remnant of the defeated Southern antebellum aristocracy.
The centerpiece of the action is Regina, however, fiercely feminist to the bitter end. One of the classic, leading stage roles for women, originated by Tallulah Bankhead and played by Anne Bancroft and Elizabeth Taylor among others, the ruthless striver matches her acquisitive sibling rivals step for step in a destructive tug-of-war for supremacy.
Helgenberger (recognized for her roles on television in television’s “CSI” and “China Beach”) portrays Regina as a smart firebrand strained through with sympathy. Eschewing the red meat and daggers of a broader performance, Helgenberger’s Regina is a lonely survivalist in a male-dominated society. She just wants her fair share of the spoils for herself and her daughter, and desperately fights against ending up a shell like the abused Birdie or at the mercy of her conniving brothers. She impresses with both a sexy assurance as she glides about on sharp wit and quick thinking and a feminine susceptibility to the loss of those she cares for.
Gero and Linington are excellent as the covetous Hubbard brothers. As Ben, the older brother in charge, Gero exudes the requisite command of someone used to getting his way, and Linington is just buoyant above a seething indignation and spitefulness common to a whipped dog.
Keating fully disappears in the role of Birdie, a consummate depiction of a woman on the edge. A burst of nervous energy, every high and low is broadcast on her face, however fleeting or false. It’s a touching portrayal of hopelessness.
The Little Foxes
closes October 30, 2016
Details and tickets
Willis’ turn as Horace is another strong performance. Ailing in body and soul, Horace is an anchor of forthrightness who holds his ground in counterpoint to the Hubbard clan. His tortured movements and utterances are underscored with a remorseful sentimentality and a searing gravitas.
The half-finished appearance of the set (design by Mikiko Suzuki Macadams) goes out on a limb by not dressing the back wall in lieu of an outdoor painting. This decision leads to an unnecessary visual distraction for the whole of the drama and squanders the opportunity to express the cloistered, overstuffed trappings of the character’s lives. I can only imagine the intensity of the action if the Hubbards were made to fight it out in a baroque, claustrophobic shell. Minus a back wall, the staircase which dominates the set and soars above the top lights is, in turn, left strangely conspicuous, like a modern art relic not in tune with the play’s reality.
Adding to the disappointment of the design, the props that do appear on stage are underwhelming and questionable for Arena’s stature.
Conversely, Jess Goldstein’s costumes impress, especially the stunning scarlet and gold knockout of a dress that Regina wears in Act 1.
Overall, Hellman’s old potboiler is ably showcased. The familial roasting is fun to watch and exquisitely acted, and her public service announcement on unchecked capitalism rings through loud and clear.
The Little Foxes is the first installment of Arena’s Lillian Hellman Festival. The playwright’s Watch on the Rhine featuring Marsha Mason will be presented in February 2017.
The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Kyle Donnelly. Featuring Kim James Bey, David Emerson Toney, Isabel Keating, Gregory Linington, Stanton Nash, Marg Helgenberger, James Whalen, Edward Gero, Megan Graves and Jack Willis. Set Design: Mikiko Suzuki Macadams. Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler. Costume Design: Jess Goldstein. Original Composition and Sound Design: Ryan Rumery. Presented by Arena Stage. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.