Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Little Foxes -- Avarice and Malice Erupt in Dramaworks’ Skillful Production

Dramaworks opens its 2017/18 season with a masterpiece, The Little Foxes, reimagined with spellbinding staging, imaginative costumes, and impressive acting,   It is an outstanding production, especially as the director, J. Barry Lewis was unexpectedly called away for personal reasons half way through rehearsals and Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director Bill Hayes ably stepped in.

Although written in 1939 and set in 1900, The Little Foxes is as relevant today as when written by Lillian Hellman, arguably among the greatest American playwrights of her time, foreshadowing the great family dramas of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.  It is set during the waning years of the Reconstruction, the gentility of southern aristocracy transitioning to the New South, and the advance of unrestrained, unscrupulous capitalism of the Gilded Age.   Hellman’s work was darkened by ten long years of a depression and the shadow of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Kathy McCafferty, Dennis Creaghan, Frank Converse, James Andreassi, Denise Cormier, Caitlin Cohn, Taylor Anthony Miller, Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
 The Little Foxes theme of unconscionable rapacity strongly resonates in our own time with essentially a plutocracy ruling our nation.  The famous quote from the play is spoken by one of the black servants, Addie, “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts.  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.”  Director J. Barry Lewis calls that the “backbone” of the play and it is omnipresent in this production, melodramatic in the contrasts it projects.

Two factions in the play represent those “who eat and those who are eaten.”  The former is depicted by the Hubbard family:  Oscar, who married Birdie a member of the southern aristocracy for the sake of cotton and the plantation, his older, shrewder brother Ben, and Birdie’s and Oscar’s loathsome son, Leo.   Oscar, Ben, and Leo form a triumvirate of venality, and are joined -- or even outdone -- by Regina Hubbard Giddens, their sister, who married -- with great expectations of wealth -- Horace Giddens, a banker.

The Hubbard clan is in sharp contrast to the rest of the characters:  Horace himself, who in his dying days sees the immorality of his prior ways; the fragile and much abused Birdie, Oscar’s wife; Alexandra, Regina and Horace’s dutiful, young daughter; and the “downstairs” people, the black help Addie and Cal. 

The Hubbards are ruthless in their dealings with the people in their small town, especially the poor whites and the blacks who have survived slavery.  The brothers have an investment scheme with a Chicago manufacturer, William Marshall (well played by the veteran actor, Frank Converse, jovial, stalwart but vulnerable to Regina’s flirtatious charms), to build a cotton mill in the area to take further advantage of cheap southern laborers.

However, the Hubbards need more money to invest and have to turn to Horace, who is ill and has been away at a hospital in Baltimore for months.  Regina must get the money from her husband and will stop at nothing to get her share as well – and more -- knowing full well that he is a dying man.  Regina inveigles their daughter Alexandra to bring her father home, under the pretense of making him more comfortable, but with only one thought in mind, to get the money.

Once home, Horace discovers that the brothers and his nephew have embezzled bonds from his safe deposit box for the investment, and tells Regina he will revise his will to virtually block her from profiting as well.  Not one to be outsmarted, she uses her knowledge of the embezzlement to blackmail her brothers.  

The Hubbard family is plagued by infighting, intrigue, and revenge. Their furtive looks on stage speak volumes.  Hellman plays out their greedy machinations as naturally as a walk down the street, almost as products of natural selection, becoming what life intended for them.  Indeed, as Lillian Hellman said in an interview, “I merely wanted, in essence, to say: ‘Here I am representing for you the sort of person who ruins the world for us.’”

Kathy McCafferty, Denise Cormier Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
In so “representing,” Hellman creates two of the preeminent female roles in a single American Drama. Birdie, is played by Denise Cormier, her PBD debut, capturing the character’s vulnerability and sad innocence.  This is in stark contrast to Regina, played by Kathy McCafferty who stalks the stage with calculating malevolence.  As different as they are, they share the commonality of women trapped in a man’s world at the turn of the century.

Birdie’s “escape” is to dream of returning to her old family plantation, Lionnet, the way it once was, Denise Cormier channels Birdie’s disconnection with reality: ”I'd like to see it fixed up again, the way Mama and Papa had it. Every year it used to get a nice coat of paint-Papa was very particular about the paint-and the lawn was so smooth all the way down to the river, with the trims of zinnias and red- feather plush. And the figs and blue little plums and the scuppenongs.“ 

Denise Cormier, Caitlin Cohn Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Yet she is also the innocent truth teller, expressing the ugly reality about her husband’s love of shooting small animals for sport while the blacks go hungry and are begging at the door: “It’s wicked to shoot food just because you like to shoot, when poor people need it so.”  She is an alcoholic, something she admits so painfully to Horace, Alexandra, Cal and Addie, musing about her husband Oscar when she was first married, “he was kind to me, then.  He used to smile at me. He hasn’t smiled at me since. Everybody knows that’s what he married me for. Everybody but me.” Cormier’s performance is heartbreakingly ethereal and memorable, particularly her unconditional love for her niece, Alexandra.

Kathy McCafferty, Rob Donohoe,
 Photo by Alicia Donelan
The leading role of Regina is totally owned by Kathy McCafferty who revels in Regina’s venality while still leaving the audience feeling some empathy as she’s an ambitious woman held prisoner in a male dominated world.  She was victimized by her father leaving all the money to her brothers and then by the brothers themselves.  No wonder she perceives her escape as having what the men have, power and money.  McCafferty’s performance walks that fine line, making Regina’s actions plausible although reprehensible.

When Horace first comes home and learns why Regina really wanted him back, Regina’s words to Horace wound, one of the several emotional peaks of the play.  McCafferty dips her dialogue deep in cynicism explaining why she married him in the first place: “You were a small-town clerk then.  You haven’t changed….It took me a little while to find out I had made a mistake.  As for you – I don’t know.  It was almost as if I couldn’t stand the kind of man you were --- I used to lie there at night, praying you wouldn’t come near. “ 

James Andreassi, Dennis Creaghan
Photo by  Alicia Donelan
The Hubbard brothers are detestable in their own distinctive ways.  James Andreassi portrays Oscar as a bully, abusive and dismissive of his fragile wife, and demeaning of his odious spoiled son, Leo, played by Taylor Anthony Miller with a hang-dog look, anxious to please with a phony smile (even his mother, Birdie, confesses that she does not like her own son). 

But Oscar is also a tool of his older brother Ben. The PBD veteran actor, Dennis Creaghan, portrays the behind-the-scenes manipulator as if it is just intrinsic to his personality.  In an environment where duplicity and suspicion reign, Oscar delivers a line which is central to the play, “It’s every man’s duty to think of himself.”  Yet it is Ben who is prophetic:  “The century’s turning, the world is open. Open for people like you and me. Ready for us, waiting for us. After all, this is just the beginning. There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country…and they will own this country some day.”  It is pragmatically and chillingly delivered by Creaghan, prophesying today’s world.   

Denise Cormier, Rob Donohoe, Caitlin Cohn
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Horace Giddens is movingly played by Rob Donohoe, a man whose illness has given him new insight into the errors of his former ways. Donohoe shows the distress of knowing he is a dying man trapped in such a toxic environment but resolute and protective of his daughter. He delivers the crushing message to Regina explaining why he intends to redraft his will with all the repressed fury he can muster: “Not to keep you from getting what you want. Not even partly that I'm sick of you, sick of this house, sick of my life here. I'm sick of your brothers and their dirty tricks to make a dime….. Why should I give you the money? To pound the bones of this town to make dividends for you to spend? You wreck the town, you and your brothers, you wreck the town and live on it. Not me. Maybe it's easy for the dying to be honest. But it's not my fault I'm dying. I'll do no more harm now. I've done enough. I'll die my own way. And I'll do it without making the world any worse. I leave that to you.”

Their daughter Alexandra, also called Zan, is played by the young actress who helped make last year’s Arcadia so memorable, Caitlin Cohn.  She renders Zan as an innocent idealist, yet one striving to discover her own individuality, learning the shocking truth about her family which is rotten to the core.  She has a joyful relationship with her Aunt Birdie and worships her father. At the end Hellman seems to point to Zan as having the options which Birdie and Regina did not: escaping the family altogether, a statement of female empowerment.

Avery Sommers, Patric Robinson
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Also representing “goodness” are the two house servants, Avery Sommers playing Addie, who is Zan’s nanny and Patric Robinson as Cal.  Cal and Addie articulate a folk wisdom throughout the play like a Greek chorus.  They have borne witness to the exploitation around them, and are victims of the Hubbard’s dismissiveness.  In spite of that, both Sommers and Robinson play their parts with an elevated dignity and supply some of the much needed humor in the play. Sommers’ facial expressions reveal her character’s knowledge of the family flaws and the basic humanity of Horace, Birdie, and Zan. There is love there in a basically loveless play.

Clearly it was J. Barry Lewis’ vision to present the play with a high degree of realism, Even though the play is in three acts with two brief intermissions, time flies as we witness the winding and unwinding of the plot, a real-life story in another time but it could be our own. 

Costumes along with scenic design also help make this production stand out.  Michael Amico’s set is stately and is in neutral colors, making the best of Dramaworks’ shallow but wide stage.  This becomes a perfect palette for Brian O'Keefe’s costume designs, supplying the color of the production. Those follow the changes in this character-driven play.  Regina’s in particular are striking, at times suggesting a seductress, a femme fatale, and of course, as her name implies, regal.  Birdie’s are designed to make her look refined, a southern belle, and as her name implies, flighty.  Zan’s bespeaks innocence and virtuousness.  It is interesting to see some of O’Keefe’s artistic renderings before a stitch is sewn:

Kathy McCafferty sees her last costume as a “feminine suit of armor.”

Paul Black’s lighting design had to work with “windows” that allows daylight to come from the audience’s side of the stage.  The lighting of the lively first act is dramatically different from the high drama of the final scene. Brad Pawlak’s sound design sets up moods mostly at the beginning and end of scenes, tapping into classical pieces by Amy Beach, a pioneering American female composer of that era.

It is not surprising that the play ends sadly, but acceptance and hopefulness are also in the mix.   Dramaworks wisely leaves it open to the audience to interpret the “winners” in this unforgettable production. 

Cast Party Opening Night