BWW Review: THE LITTLE FOXES at Palm Beach Dramaworks
Palm Beach Dramaworks presents Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. Considered by many to be Hellman's masterpiece, this classic play about greed and the path of destruction it leaves in it's wake, is as timely now as when it was written in 1939.
The title of the play, which was suggested to Hellman by Dorothy Parker, comes from the Bible's Song of Solomon: "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes."
The fictional members of the Hubbard family in the play are reputedly drawn from Lillian Hellman relatives. Hellman's maternal grandparents were Leonard Newhouse, a Demopolis wholesale liquor dealer, and Sophie Marx, of a successful Demopolis banking family. According to Hellman, Sophie Marx Newhouse never missed an opportunity to belittle and mock her father for his poor business sense in front of her and her mother. The discord between the Marx and Hellman families served as the inspiration for the play.
Set in 1900, in a small town in Alabama, The Little Foxes is the story of the ruthless Hubbard family who love nothing more than money; and will do anything to get rich, regardless of the human cost. They have built their wealth exploiting the poor and minority populations of their county. A Chicago businessman offers to partner with them to build a cotton mill in their small town, a deal that will make all of them very wealthy. The Hubbard brothers, Benjamin and Oscar, are in, but need the remaining third of their share from their sister Regina. Regina, who has no rights as a woman in the old South, must get the money from her husband, Horace, a banker. Horace, who is terminally ill, wants no part of the deal, having had enough of a family that cheats, and makes its money off the back of cheap labor. But Regina will not be denied, and she plots to get more than her fair share, regardless of who gets hurt along the way. The price Regina ultimately pays for her evil deeds is the loss of her daughter Alexandra's love and respect. Regina's actions cause Alexandra to finally understand the importance of not idly watching people do evil. She tells Regina she will not watch her be "one who eats the earth," and abandons her. Having let her husband die, alienated her brothers, and driven away her only child, Regina is left wealthy but completely alone.
Hellman's compelling writing more than stands the test of time. Every word and turn of phrase flows as naturally form the mouths of her characters as they did when they were first written nearly 80 years ago. The cast of this production of The Little Foxes handle the dialogue with an elegant lack of effort. The greatest compliment one can offer is to say that I stopped being aware of people acting for almost the entire show. Actors speaking lines as if they were organically springing forth from their mouths for the first time on stage is that magical moment every actor (and audience member) lives for. The three act, nearly three hour production flew by because I was never once bored, distracted or lost. When it comes to classics, one can sometimes be bogged down in style, time period, or replication of an iconic original performance. This production is free from those encumbrances, simply soaring free to be the artfully written, insightful and compelling piece that Hellman intended it to be.
Scenic and costume design is rich and detailed, and serve well as the backdrop for the action at hand. Kathy McCafferty (Regina) has the cool confidence of a woman without conscience. Her choices are made with the calculation of a chess master plotting her checkmate from the very first move. She has little patience for anyone of anything that gets in the way of what she wants. MCafferty feels at home lounging on the elegant couch on the set of her home as someone who had sat there a million times.
Both James Andreassi and Dennis Creaghan turn in strong performances as Regina's brothers Oscar and Benjamin. Creaghan is particularly imposing. Taylor Anthony Miller does a fine job in the somewhat thankless role of Regina's spoiled, unlikable, and slightly creepy nephew Leo. Caitlin Cohn does a lovely job as Regina's teenaged daughter Alexandra. She does struggle with the ending scene a bit however in which her performance comes off as stilted. Rob Donohoe is touching as Regina's long-suffering husband Horrace; and his death scene is quite convincing.
The stand out performance of this production however is Denise Cormier as Birdie. She has the trembling vulnerability of a flower that continues to bloom day after day amidst the bleakest of emotional midwinters. There is a genuine grace and honesty in her portrayal of the self-effacing yet eternally hopeful character. Her last scene. worthy of a monologue masterclass, is one of the best things I've ever seen on that stage.
The real star of this production is the teamwork evidenced by the final product, for no one person could have brought Hellman's work to fruition so successfully. This wonderful Palm Beach Dramawork's production of The Little Foxes is the result of a strong ensemble of actors, led by a talented director; and should not be missed.?
The Little Foxes, directed by Herman Shumlin, opened on Broadway on February 15, 1939, and ran for 410 performances. Tallulah Bankhead earned raves for her portrayal of Regina. Bette Davis starred in the acclaimed 1941 film, directed by William Wyler, which featured five members of the original Broadway cast: Patricia Collinge as Birdie, Charles Dingle as Benjamin, Carl Benton Reid as Oscar, Dan Duryea as Leo, and John Marriott as Cal. Also in the film were Herbert Marshall as Horace and Teresa Wright as Alexandra. The play was revived on Broadway for the first time in 1967. That much-lauded production was directed by Mike Nichols, and starred Anne Bancroft as Regina. The cast also included Margaret Leighton, E.G. Marshall, George C. Scott, Maria Tucci, Richard A. Dysart, Austin Pendleton, and Beah Richards. Pendleton later directed a 1981 revival which starred Elizabeth Taylor and featured Maureen Stapleton as Birdie. Stockard Channing portrayed Regina in a 1997 production. In the most recent Broadway revival, earlier this year, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternated in the roles or Regina and Birdie. Hellman had planned for the play to be part of a trilogy. Another Part of the Forest, which takes place 20 years before The Little Foxes, opened on Broadway in 1946. But Hellman never got around to writing the third play.
Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) was one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century. Known as much for her commitment to left-wing and liberal causes as for her writing, her plays, including The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest (for which she also wrote the screenplays), frequently reflected her ideology. Her first play, The Children's Hour (1934), in which a student accuses two teachers of being lesbians, was about the power of a lie and slander and prejudice. Watch on the Rhine (1940) was written in response to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression agreement between Hitler and Stalin. The lesser-known The Searching Wind (1944) is a condemnation of the international politics that enabled Hitler's rise to power. Other major works include the book for the musical Candide (1956) and the semi-autobiographical Toys in the Attic (1960).
Hellman also had a long career in Hollywood, with more than 30 credits to her name. But she may be best known for a line that she wrote neither for stage nor screen. Prior to testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she wrote a letter to the chairman and asked him not to force her to name names. "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," she said. She stayed true to her word, and was blacklisted.
This Palm Beach Dramaworks production of The Little Foxes will be appearing at The Don & Ann Brown Theatre through November 12, 2017. The Palm Beach Dramaworks is a non-profit, professional theatre and is a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the South Florida Theatre League, Florida Professional Theatres Association, and the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County.
The Don & Ann Brown Theatre is located in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach, at 201 Clematis Street. The Little Foxes performance schedule is as follows: Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30PM, Friday and Saturday at 8PM (except Saturday, October 28, which starts at 7PM), and select Sundays at 7PM. Matinee performances are on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2PM. Post-performance discussions follow Wednesday matinee and Sunday evening performances. Individual tickets are $75, with specially priced preview tickets at $55 and Opening Night tickets at $90. Student tickets are available for $15, and Pay Your Age tickets are available for those 18-40. Tickets for educators are half price with proper ID (other restrictions apply). Group rates for 20 or more and discounted season subscriptions are also available. For ticket information contact the box office at (561) 514-4042, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Regina Giddens: Kathy McCafferty*
Benjamin Hubbard: Dennis Creaghan*
Oscar Hubbard: James Andreassi*
Birdie Hubbard: Denise Cormier*
Horace Giddens: Rob Donohoe*
Leo Hubbard: Taylor Anthony Miller *
Alexandra Giddens: Caitlin Cohn*
Addie: Avery Sommers*
Cal: Patric Robinson
Director: J. Barry Lewis
Scenic Design: Michael Amico
Costume Design: Brian O'Keefe
Lighting Design: Paul Black
Sound Design: Brad Pawlak
Stage Manager: Suzanne Clement Jones*
*Indicates a member of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional stage actors and stage managers in the United States.
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Review by John Lariviere