Entertainment » Theatre

The Little Foxes

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Friday Feb 22, 2019
Will McGarrahan, Anne Gottlieb, Michael John Ciszewski and Remo Airaldi in "The Little Foxes" at the Lyric Stage through March 17.
Will McGarrahan, Anne Gottlieb, Michael John Ciszewski and Remo Airaldi in "The Little Foxes" at the Lyric Stage through March 17.  (Source:Lyric Stage)

Want to sit in a nest of vipers, so close that you can see their fangs?

At present, you have that opportunity at the Lyric Stage in Scott Edmiston's splendid, immersive-feeling production of "The Little Foxes." Not that the nasty Hubbards — the mendacious siblings who plot to gain a fortune in the Antebellum South — actually flash their fangs. They are too genteel for that, but they've never felt as immediate as they are here, and this intimacy makes Lillian Hellman's potboiler both theatrically vivid and oddly nuanced.

Nuanced isn't a word usually associated with Hellman, who wrote the play in 1939 modeling the Hubbards on her own Southern relatives. She was for a good chunk of the 20th century the American theater's great moralist who saw the world in black-and-white, which makes many of her plays effective, if didactic melodramas. She was also that way in her personal life, making headlines in 1952 when she went before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and famously said "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," claiming that she wasn't a political person. Late in life her vendetta against writer Mary McCarthy, in which she drove her rival to near bankruptcy, made her seem like a character from one of her own of her own plays (and not its hero). If Ryan Murphy is searching for a new subject for a second season of "Feud," he should look into the legal battle between these literary giants.

But this production reconsiders this play's heroine, or rather anti-heroine — Regina Giddens — through a contemporary, feminist lens, underscoring that her steely manner stems from her being a victim of male patriarchy. Hellman baked this in the text, but it never feels as pertinent as it is here. She remains a monster — what else can you say about a character whose cruel stillness in the play's climactic moment still has the ability to shock? Yet this Regina — in the calculating performance of Anne Gottlieb — elicits sympathy for her plight. You can understand her bitterness when you realize how constrained she is by the men in her life: her husband, Horace, with whom she has a contentious relationship; and brothers, crass Oscar and wily Ben, whom she equals or surpasses with her tenacious drive. Little wonder she feels so caged.

Anne Gottlieb and Amelia Broome in "The Little Foxes"  (Source:Lyric Stage)

Edmiston frames his production with music that sounds like a soundtrack to a horror film and sets it in an elegant sitting room found in some haunted mansion. (The handsome room, replete with a staircase that proves so pivotal to the plot, is by Janie E. Howland.) Paintings of earlier Hubbards, who are noted to have been as avaricious as their living counterparts, frame the room, making it clear that Regina, Ben, and Oscar come from a long-line of bourgeoise monsters who, as the title indicates, are akin to the Biblical foxes who plunder the vineyard. When Ben says that the Hubbards and their kind will own the world someday, his words feel uncomfortably prescient.

Hellman's carefully wrought skills as a dramatist have made this play her most durable with Regina Giddens being a choice role for American actresses over the years: Tallulah Bankhead, who originated the role; Bette Davis (doing her best Tallulah) on film; Anne Bancroft and Stockard Channing both played her in revivals, as did Elizabeth Taylor in a celebrated star turn; and, most recently, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon who alternated playing Regina and Birdie Hubbard, Regina's sad sister in law (and an equally juicy part).

What's funny about this production, and the performance of Gottlieb as Regina, is that it had me thinking of how much Hellman owes Henrik Ibsen, both in its expert construction but also with its heroine, who faces a dilemma, not unlike that of Nora in "A Doll's House." But Regina doesn't so much walk out the door as calculate her exit. And she does so with cunning and imagination, the only tools at her disposal. Her contemporary counterpart would be right at home in a juicy series about the machinations of the wealthy like HBO's recent hit "Succession." Gottlieb lets you into Regina's ambition and, in doing so, makes you complicit with it, like in a Hitchcock film.

There's top-notch acting all around. Amelia Broome turns Birdie Hubbard, Oscar's unhappy, alcoholic wife, into a long, lost character out of Tennessee Williams, and does so with heartbreaking simplicity. Hellman neatly delineates the Hubbard brothers, with Ben being the more capable at playing psychological chess with Regina, while Oscar is out of his league, clearly playing checkers. Remo Airaldi plays Ben with a cool sense of humor, bringing an almost impish quality to Ben; while Will McGarrahan skillfully embodies the altogether nasty Oscar with brusque callousness. Both Cheryl D. Singleton and Kinson Theordoris bring depth to Addie and Cal, the African-Americans who are both far more than just servants in the Hubbard household. Craig Mathers balances frailty with long-smoldering anger as Horace, Regina's mortally ill husband who is summoned from his Baltimore hospital bed to close a deal that will make the Hubbards rich. Bill Mootos charms as the Chicago businessman who has come to close the deal; Rosa Procaccino brings conviction to Alexandra, Regina and Horace's daughter caught between her battling parents; and Michael John Ciszewski nicely captures the dandy attitude of Leo, Oscar and Birdie's son whose act of thievery drives the plot.

Before the performance, it was suggested that photos of the set were in order with good reason; Howland's is a model of concept and execution - a lovely if oddly cold setting that seemed like something out of an Agatha Christie mystery. Lighting Designer Karen Perlow takes her cues from the gas lighting (there are three chandeliers), bathing the stage in saffron hues; and Gail Astrid Buckley's period (1900) costumes have lovely authenticity, though Regina's stylish, deep blue evening gown she wears in the opening scene is something that would be right at home at a contemporary dinner party.

So much can be said about "The Little Foxes;" its treatment of the racial divide, for instance; or simply how Hellman conceived her African-American characters. And what of Hellman's place in American theater? Why has she - the only female playwright of her time who could compete with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams at the height of her fame - fallen out of favor in the 21st century? Is"The Little Foxes" a great classic of the American stage or simply a riveting family melodrama with the most hateful marriage this side of "Virginia Woolf?" Whatever the answers, what Scott Edmiston does so well here is to serve Hellman's script with bracing naturalism, putting it front-and-center in such a seductive way. The vipers battle it out on the Lyric stage and it's thrilling to watch.

"The Little Foxes" continues through March 17 at the Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA. For further information, visit the Lyric Stage website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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