Kelly McGillis Out Foxes in 'The Little Foxes'
Newly out actress Kelly McGillis heads a strong cast in the Pasadena Playhouse’s excellent production of the Lillian Hellman classic, Little Foxes directed by Dámaso Rodriguez.
The Little Foxes is a play with a lot to say -- about rapacious business practices, exploitation of the poor, and gender politics -- and 70 years after its Broadway bow, it’s still delivering its message effectively.
Newly out actress Kelly McGillis heads a strong cast in the Pasadena Playhouse’s excellent production of the Lillian Hellman classic, directed by Dámaso Rodriguez. In the program notes, Rodriguez comments that The Little Foxes “shockingly reflects our times,” and the action onstage proves him right. With their greed and treachery, Hellman’s Gilded Age little foxes would likely fit right in with the big, bad wolves at some of today’s too-large-to-fail companies.
The play is set in 1900 in a small Southern town, where brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard are successful merchants. However, they and their sister, Regina, envision much greater riches if they partner with a Chicago firm to build a cotton mill in their town, bringing “the mill to the cotton.” The one obstacle to their plan is Regina’s absent and estranged husband, banker Horace Giddens, who has not agreed to put up the couple’s share of the investment. When Regina sends their daughter, Alexandra, to bring the ailing Horace home from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, it’s part of a scheme of deceit, backstabbing, and worse as Ben, Oscar, and Regina each try to turn the deal to their advantage.
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The siblings are ruthless not only toward each other; Hellman lets us know that Ben and Oscar have cheated almost everyone they’ve done business with. What’s more, they’re committed to delivering a docile, underpaid mill workforce, assuring their Chicago partner there will be no strikes and low wages -- $3 a week compared to $8 at Northern mills, less if they play off black and white workers against each other.
Regina recognizes her brothers for what they are but has no problem with their unethical ways; she’s tired of men holding all the power and the purse strings, and she figures she can best them at their own game and amass enough wealth to leave the genteel Horace, whom she disdains as weak, and gain a place in the high society of Chicago.
As Regina, McGillis takes on a role associated with two icons -- Tallulah Bankhead, who originated it on Broadway in 1939, and Bette Davis, who starred in the 1941 film adaptation -- and makes it her own, quite well. She conveys both Regina’s charm and her cruelty; the character is unsympathetic, but her frustration is understandable, and she’s recognizably human even at her most villainous. McGillis is a powerfully charismatic performer, and she’s also stunningly beautiful in the period costumes designed by Mary Vogt. (Besides Vogt’s costumes, also meriting special mention is Gary Wissman’s set, portraying the luxury of the Giddens household but hinting at the underlying decay.)
The cast’s other big name, Julia Duffy, is effective and affecting as Birdie, Oscar’s ill-treated wife, a gentle woman trapped in a loveless marriage, pining for her family’s once-grand plantation, and comforting herself by drinking on the sly. It’s a character and performance far removed from Duffy’s most famous role, the vain, self-centered heiress-maid Stephanie Vanderkellen of Newhart.
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Indeed, there isn’t a bad performance among the cast, which features Steve Vinovich as domineering bachelor brother Ben; Marc Singer, known for many TV roles, as the toadyish Oscar; Geoff Pierson, seen on-screen last year in Changeling, as Horace, a decent man who regrets some things he’s done; Rachel Sondag as the seemingly naive Alexandra; Shawn Lee as Oscar and Birdie’s worthless son, Leo; Tom Schmid as Chicago businessman William Marshall; and Yvette Cason and Cleavant Derricks as Giddens family servants Addie and Cal, respectively.
Addie and Cal are the play’s only African-American characters, and their roles as written are somewhat of the “faithful family retainer” ilk, problematic for 2009 audiences, undoubtedly more acceptable to some 1939 viewers. Still, Hellman imbues them with a degree of dignity certainly not seen in, say, most black characters on film in that era, and that dignity is also present in the portrayals by Cason and Derricks. It’s also clear that Addie and Cal harbor no illusions about their white employers; in fact, it’s Addie who sums up the play’s theme, that there are people who devour the world around them and others who just stand by and watch -- but both are culpable in the resulting destruction.
And while The Little Foxes depicts the contrast between New South and Old, its message is not necessarily that the latter was better. When Birdie rhapsodizes about her parents’ plantation and claims their slaves were treated well, audiences at one time might have bought into the idea that this was a kinder, more gracious way of living; today, recognizing that plantation life was kind and gracious for whites only, theatergoers will likely see Birdie as deluded -- or in denial -- about the peculiar institution that paved the way for the racial and class exploitation practiced by crude capitalists like the Hubbards.
And Hellman’s play, in this high-quality production, remains an effective indictment of their still-familiar brand of capitalism. It’s well worth spending a couple of hours watching these characters try to outfox one another.