Review : 'The Little Foxes' at Richardson Theatre Centre

 Chris Jackson

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

“Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” - Song of Solomon, Chapter 2, Verse 15, King James Version

“I hope you die. I hope you die soon. (Smiles,) I’ll be waiting for you to die.” - Regina to her wheelchair-bound husband, Horace. The Little Foxes, end of Act II.

The fictional Hubbard family, in this 1939 drama by Lillian Hellman, is reputedly drawn from Hellman’s own Alabama family history. The play premiered on Broadway on February 15, 1939, running for 410 performances and toured extensively in the United States. It starred Tallulah Bankhead as Regina Giddens in a career-making performance. Ms. Bankhead, evidently, soon clashed with director Herman Shumlin and playwright Lillian Hellman over a difference in politics, with the result that Ms. Bankhead didn’t speak to Ms. Hellman for twenty five years and wrote letters to Time magazine criticizing her. 

Richardson Theatre Centre

Richardson Theatre Centre

Theater gossip states that one of the reasons Ms. Hellman wrote Another Part of the Forest (1946) as a prequel to The Little Foxes was to make sure Ms. Bankhead wouldn’t be able to appear in the play. Whatever the machinations were backstage, the play was a hit and has become an often produced staple of the American theater with several Broadway revivals over the years. Bette Davis played Regina in the film version, which was filled with its own offstage drama, and received an Academy Award nomination for her performance.

Set in a small town in Alabama in 1900, the play focuses on the struggle between two brothers and their sister for control of the family business. The unscrupulous siblings spare nothing in their efforts to amass the most money, even if it means destroying the family dynamic.

Richardson Theatre Centre presents their take on this story on a set very nicely designed by LaMar Graham, appropriately decorated by Rachael Lindley. Coral-striped wallpaper and dark woodwork provide a deceptively warm environment. The staircase up center, a dining room visible behind lace-curtained double doors, and Victorian era furniture, paintings and house plants make the room suitably period. 

The space where RTC presents their shows is a small comfortable room with seating in a slightly u-shaped configuration. This arrangement puts everyone close to the action, creating a nicely intimate experience. The playing space not being elevated can present some problems in staging. Director Greg Smith does what he can with the cast of ten, often having five or six actors on stage simultaneously. This line of actors, with little use of triangular or muiti-level placement, sometime results in loss of focus on important moments or lines of dialogue. Lots of furniture also means the actors are often behind chairs rather than in front. There are long stretches of dialogue with stationary actors, seated or standing. Blocking seems random and unmotivated, and those playing servants are forced to make clumsy interruptions to refill glasses or remove items, sometimes covering the actors speaking. 

Leading the cast is Rachael Lindley in the role of Regina. Ms Lindley is the Artistic Director and for this production also handles properties, costumes, and set decorations. Perhaps this is why she, like several other cast members, often seems unsure of her lines. Her performance portrays a Regina perhaps less calculating than might be expected, though she has good moments of steely resolve that make one wish she would use that aspect of the character more often. Lindley plays Regina as capable of handling her brothers when pushed by the story, but doesn’t dominate throughout as the central character should. Her accent works well in the Alabama context and her movements are assured. A fan she uses as a prop, however, finally becomes distracting in its constancy.

Russell Vaden and D. Heath Gammon play Oscar and Ben, brothers to Regina, and completing the triangle of greed and destruction. Both gentlemen are comfortable on stage, Mr. Vaden with a commanding figure and voice and his reactions to Leo’s clueless remarks, and Mr. Gammon with a relaxed approach that generally works in Ben’s favor. His speech toward the end of the play sums up Ms. Hellman’s pessimistic view when the character says, “The century’s turning, the world is open. … Ready for us, waiting for us. … There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren’t Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards, and they will own this country some day.” A sad commentary from 1939 which still seems all too true. Mr. Gammon delivers this important speech well with just the right combination of cynicism and victory. In most productions, Ben is the dominant of the two brothers, however in this case, Mr. Gammon doesn’t ever quite reach that Alpha Dog position leaving it to Mr. Vaden and throwing the dynamic off.

Lise Alexander is Birdie, the trampled down wife of Oscar, married for her position and her family’s cotton. Ms. Alexander understands her character and has moments of wonderful pathos. Her drunken scenes are not overplayed and are believable. Her long monologue in the third act works as the actress paints a visually clear picture of Birdie’s life. Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander too stumbles over her lines and sometimes seems to be playing alone rather than with the other actors on stage

Budd Mahan enters as Horace, Regina’s husband, and makes a fine first impression. Appearing genuinely weak and ill, he still manages to communicate the character’s intelligence and inner strength when dealing with the other Hubbard family members. Mr. Mahan creates a worthy opponent for the Hubbard brothers and his final scene with Regina is heartfelt and real.

Richardson Theatre Centre

Richardson Theatre Centre

Alexandra, daughter of Regina and Horace, is played by Calli Rose Young, and Leo, son of Oscar and Birdie is played by Glenn Averoigne. These two younger cast members hold their own with the more adult players. Miss Rose, especially, creates a believably naïve young woman of the period who gradually becomes her own person. The actress’s posture and delivery reflect Alexandra’s growing maturity. Mr. Averoigne, unfortunately, doesn’t fair quite as well, giving the audience a one-dimensional character stressing a physical weakness rather than one of character.

Laura Warner is Addie, the wise, compassionate maid who delivers the author’s take on the Biblical quote at the top of this review: “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it …. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.” Ms. Warner understands the subtext of her speech and creates a strong and ethical character by her stance and reactions. Cal, another servant, is played by Fred T. His is a smaller but vital role made believable by his delivery and actions. The character of Mr. William Marshall appears briefly in the first act and is played by Ben Richardson. Mr. Richardson looks the part but was also having difficulty remembering his lines which got the play off to an awkward start. Lighting by Richard Stephens, Jr., Ben Richardson, and Charlie Smith adequately illuminates the stage with the exception of the downstage areas which have bothersome dark spots so that the actors are lost in the shadows. Sound by Richard Stephens, Jr. consists mainly of piano music when Alexandria and Birdie are supposed to be playing. It is a little soft at the top of Act Three, and therefore not believable as being live.

The major problem with the production (at least on opening night) is the pace, with little or no build or clear definition of action beats. The third act, especially, being the climax of the play, is very slow and languid, preventing the audience from staying involved in the story. The one exception is an overlapping argument between four characters in the first act that wonderfully snaps and crackles. If that same fire and dedication to pursuing objectives could be evident throughout, the production would then grab attention and hold it. 

Often there is a lack of menace or ruthlessness in the characterizations, resulting in a loss of subtext and more interesting character development. Other times what the actors are saying versus what their bodies are doing are at polar opposites, leaving their emotions less than organic and often imposed upon the character. The play also uses the “N” word which may jar some of the audience despite its period appropriateness.

The dedication of the participants in Richardson Theatre Centre’s The Little Foxes is obvious in all aspects and I feel certain the production will find its rhythm and become a fine representation of the playwright’s work. For those not familiar with the play, the plot alone holds attention and makes attending worth the trip with themes that unfortunately still resonate today.

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