The Little Foxes - The Lyric Stage Company
The Little Foxes – Lyric Stage Company
Review by James Wilkinson
The Little Foxes is produced by Lyric Stage Company. Written by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Assistant Director: Kate Franklin. Scenic Design: Janie E. Howland. Costume Design: Gail Astrid Buckley. Lighting Design: Karen Perlow. Sound Design/Original Music: Dewey Dellay. Fight Director: Jesse Hinson.
At the first intermission of Lyric Stage Company’s production of The Little Foxes the woman next to me bumped into my leg as she got up from her seat. “I’m so sorry” she said, looking a little unsteady on her feet. “It’s just that it’s so visceral.” I smiled and nodded because I’m the kind of person who likes to play with his cards very close to his chest. I also try to reserve judgement until taken the whole thing in, but I knew what the woman meant. So much of Lyric’s production aims to overpower you and I think that on a technical level, there’s no question that it achieves that goal. It’s a solid piece of work, put together in a way that makes you want to stand back and admire the craft at work. The play is Lillian Hellman’s best-known and has (I think) rightfully earned its place not just as a classic but as a uniquely American classic. It’s the play’s American spirit that I think the Lyric’s production is trying to tap into.
Lillian Hellman is one of those writers seems to occupy strange no-man’s-land middle ground where she’s both highly esteemed and yet not highly esteemed enough. This might (hell, probably does) have something to do with her being a female voice at a time when male voices dominated the theatrical landscape (her first play premiered in 1934, her last in 1960). Present day, we don’t see many productions of her work besides The Little Foxes (though my theatrical wish list includes a queer artist-driven production of The Children’s Hour). The press notes the Lyric provided me with say that critics would often dismiss her work as melodramas. I’d actually agree but I’d also question why that should be a bad thing? Certainly the play is no more or less melodramatic than The Glass Menagerie or Death of a Salesman. In fact I would argue that the melodrama is part of the point. In her best work, Hellman how the personal and the political can collide in daily life and how the lives of ordinary people are woven into the march of history. Which brings us to The Little Foxes…
The Hubbard siblings, brothers Benjamin, Oscar and sister Regina (Remo Airaldi, Will McGarrahan and Anne Gottlieb), are looking to broker a deal with Chicago businessman, William Marshall (Bill Mootos), which will bring his factories to their deep-south town and make them an enormous amount of money. The only thing holding them back is getting together the cash for their half of the deal. Oscar and Benjamin put up their shares, but Regina needs her husband Horace (Craig Mathers) to write a check for her third. Horace has been away in Baltimore for five months receiving medical treatment for a heart condition and it doesn’t look like he’ll be returning any time soon. Time is of the essence as the brothers don’t want to have to go outside the family to get the missing funds. The siblings’ greed soon takes over and as each schemes to get a larger portion of the reward we learn just what kind of rot has taken hold in the Hubbard clan and how it spreads out, infecting the community around them.
The Lyric’s production begins working on you the moment you enter the theater and get the full view of Janie E. Howland’s truly spectacular set design. I happened to catch a preview photo of it in some internet advertising last week. I wish I hadn’t, as it somewhat spoiled the reveal; but I understand why the Lyric was so proud of it. Before a single line of dialogue is spoken, we’re dropped into the world of the play. The lush green background, imposing mahogany columns that stretch to the sky and imperial furniture impeccably placed around the room let us know that we’ve entered the land of the incredibly wealthy. A sense of opulence practically dripping off Gail Astrid Buckley’s gorgeous costume design. Scott Edmiston doesn’t so much direct the show as he conducts it with a consuming sense of grandeur. The production opens with a blast of instrumental music like in an old MGM film as Anne Gottlieb’s Regina descends a long curved staircase half lit, her blue dress practically glowing as it trails after her. It’s a beautiful image in a show that (if nothing else) is always beautiful to look at.
Thankfully, there’s a bit more to it than just looks. Hellman’s script provides a rock solid foundation for the actors to dig into. I suppose that it’s inevitable that the actress playing Regina will walk off with the show as it’s the biggest part (both in number of lines and emotionally), but that shouldn’t detract from just how good Anne Gottlieb is in the role. In Regina’s more fiery moments, Gottlieb digs in her heels and finds the grit that makes the character a force of nature. She has a great sparring partner in Craig Mathers’ Horace who can match her beat for beat. The two are surrounded by actors who do well in the “quieter” parts including Will McGarrahan and Remo Airaldi as Oscar and Benjamin and Cheryl D. Singleton as Addie. Singleton has the particular challenge of taking on a character that could easily be a stock stereotype, the African American maid. In her hands, though, Addie not only feels like a complete character, but also like a crucial part of the play’s emotional arc.
If I have a misgiving with the production (and it seems that I have to have at least one) it’s that it seems kind of strange to have this searing indictment of American greed and corruption to feel so…well...respectable. I think it’s what prevented me from connecting to the production at the same level as the woman next to me. It never felt like the audience turned against the Hubbard siblings at any point in the evening. Instead, everyone around me seemed to view the wheelings and dealings with a kind of benign amusement as though it were something that occurred in a bubble rather than as a symptom of a corrupt system. And Lyric’s production seems to encourage this reading. There’s a climatic action that Regina takes in act three (for spoiler reasons I won’t divulge it here, but if you know the play, you know what moment I’m talking about), and it’s interesting to see how Lyric’s production handles the moment. It’s played not so much as a “deal with the devil” choice Regina is making but as something she supernaturally wills into being.
In fact, during the home stretch of the play it very much seemed as though the audience was on Regina’s side and rooting for her. And truthfully, I understand that sympathy because I felt it for her myself. Looking at the play in a 2019 post second-wave feminism/post-#metoo context, you can’t help but notice the ways that she was kept down simply because she was a woman. Her father left the family fortune to her brothers. She had to marry in order to gain any sort of standing in the world. It couldn’t have been easy and you can argue that she’s simply playing the hand she’s been dealt, but at the end of the day, she’s not exactly giving the money to school children. Her financial windfall comes from exploiting blue collar workers.
“There are hundreds of Hubbards in rooms like this throughout the country” Ben says and in 2019, Hellman’s rage against the machine rings out with an eerie prescience. Maybe one day we’ll listen.
The Little Foxes is playing at Lyric Stage Company February 15-March 17, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.lyricstage.com