Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The Little Foxes A More Sympathetic Regina
The setting is the living room of the Giddens' house in a small Alabama town in 1900. Conniving brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard have a deal with Chicago investor William Marshall to build a cotton mill which will make them rich. Marshall is depending on the brothers' being able to use their political clout to thwart unionization and enable them to underpay their workers. They need capitalization from their sister Regina's husband Horace Giddens, a local banker, so as not to have to bring in a new investor and lose control of the enterprise. Giddens is in a clinic in Baltimore where he is being treated for a critical heart condition. Regina dreams of using the anticipated mill earnings to move to Chicago and become a part of that city's society. Lacking any concern for her husband's well being, Regina sends their daughter Alexander, whom Horace adores, to bring him home from Baltimore.
Lillian Hellman's play opened on Broadway in 1939 with Tallulah Bankhead as Regina . Few of us were around then. More recently, there were major New York revivals of Foxes in 1967, 1981 and 1997. The 1967 revival with Anne Bancroft, directed by Mike Nichols, was the most powerful and memorable of them. Still, there can be little doubt that the 1941 film adaptation is the version which most informs our thoughts about this play. Film director William Wyler delivered an emotional, melodramatic blockbuster of a film in which Bette Davis' Regina comes across as the evilest, most diabolical of the Hubbards. Hers is a Regina whom we love to hate as we watch the film again and again on Turner Classic Movies.
Thus, it is quite refreshing to see a far more sympathetic, clearly sinned-against Regina on stage in the current revival. Surely, Regina is up to all her old ruthless tricks, but it is clear, both in the text and in the richly nuanced performance of Kathryn Meisle, that Regina's bad behavior is the result of the cruelly unfair treatment she has received as an unemancipated female in a male-dominated society. I do believe that author Lillian Hellman has more admiration for Regina than she has for Regina's lovely and cultured sister-in-law Birdie whose only refuge from the cruel and brutal domination of her husband Oscar is found in a bottle. Given the grace that Hellman finds in the tender bond formed by Birdie with Horace and Alexandra, you may well debate this view, but the fact that there is sufficient depth and texture to allow for such debate attests to the quality of Hellman's play.
In addition to a feminist view, there is also present a Marxist view of the evil of the robber barons of capitalism and the illegitimate excess of their profits (a very common theme in depression era theatre). The implementation of vastly increased government control and regulation of the economy and business in America today is based on the same world view which Hellman espouses. This lends the play contemporary relevance seventy years after it was written.
Much, if not all of this must have carried over in Hellman's own screenplay for the film. However, Bette Davis and William Wyler made Regina so deliciously hateful that the role obliterates all this good stuff from memory. Kathryn Meisle brings grace and charm and a pleasing physical presence all quite appropriate to a Regina who entered a loveless marriage to provide for herself after her family estate went in its entirety to her two scheming and selfish brothers. Meisle displays desperation when she sends Alexandra to fetch Horace. And when her Regina performs her most immoral, despicable act, Meisle performs it as something that she has to force herself to do in the light of Horace's determination to repeat the wrong which she had suffered at the hands of her own family.
Philip Goodwin and Brian Dykstra are convincing as the Hubbard brothers, Ben and Oscar. Although the dominant Ben is clearly the smarter of the two, both actors make it clear that neither is as smart as he prizes himself. Thus, when the shrewd Regina gains the upper hand over them, it feels most natural. Deanne Lorette fully engages our empathy as Oscar's wife, Birdie. Bradford Cover (Horace), Lindsey Wochley (Alexandra) and Einar Gunn (William Marshall) each lend solid support. Venida Evans lends careful detail to the servant Addie, and Ron Brice is true to the less comfortable role of the servant CalI think that any discomfort that I felt with this role is more inside my overly sensitized head than it is in anything in the play or production. Fisher Neal is too bland as (Birdie and Oscar's son) Leo. This is one mean, oily and stupid dude, and he wears it all on his sleeve. Lillian Hellman certainly wanted us to enjoy hating him. Dan Duryea, who repeated his stage role in the 1939 film, nailed the role with a slime ball interpretation that is the polar opposite of Neal's.
Director Matthew Arbour has directed the play in an expertly paced, straightforward manner which allows all of its elements full sway. The three-act play is performed with two intermissions. Scott Bradley's set is full of interesting angles and details, and more than adequate to the occasion.
Kathryn Meisle's sympathetic and dimensional Regina is the illuminating centerpiece of NJST's fully engrossing The Little Foxes.
The Little Foxes continues performances (Tuesday-Wednesday 7:30 p.m./ Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7:30 p.m. except 5/24) through June 28, 2009 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.
The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, directed by Matthew Arbour