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Chicago by John Olson

The Little Foxes
Goodman Theatre


Shannon Cochran, Steve Pickering, and Larry Yando
Lillian Hellman's 1939 play, with its ten juicy roles, has long been bait for theater artists eager to play members of a Southern turn-of-the-century family battling each other for wealth. Who wouldn't want to follow in the footsteps of Tallulah Bankhead or Bette Davis, who on stage and screen respectively originated the role of the duplicitous Regina Hubbard Giddens—a woman who would sacrifice her husband and daughter all for her own financial gain? The play has been revived on Broadway three times, each with a director and casts that were greats of their era: Mike Nichols directing Anne Bancroft, George C. Scott, E.G. Marshall, and Austin Pendleton in 1967; Pendleton directing Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen Stapleton in 1981; and Jack O'Brien directing Stockard Channing in 1997. With this production by the Goodman Theatre, Chicago in 2015 has brought some of its very best theater artists together to create our own Little Foxes for the ages.

Henry Wishcamper, a Goodman artistic associate with New York credits, again shows his ability to elicit performances from his actors that are as grounded and believable as they are entertaining. It would be easy for this drama of intrigues among an old line Southern family to descend into camp, but while the Hubbards have large emotions and high stakes, Wishcamper's performers always show us where their characters are coming from. As conniving as they get, we see why they believe their actions are justifiable, as they scheme to maximize their share of the profits from a cotton mill in which they hope to invest.

Wishcamper's Regina is Shannon Cochran, who plays her with a steely confidence that suggests Regina could have been the most powerful member of the family if not held back by the conventions of the era that gave inheritances to male family members. It's evident one crosses her at their own risk, though certainly her brother Benjamin is up for the fight. The formidable stage presence of Larry Yando—who's played baddies from Roy Cohn, Richard Nixon, Scrooge, and Scar—makes Benjamin a worthy adversary for Regina. The third sibling, Oscar, is projected by Steve Pickering as a brute with anger management issues who wields power more by force than cunning. His son Leo is at times mouse, other times weasel, and played by Dan Waller as rather dim, but unfortunately for him, bright enough to conceive the scheme that ultimately unravels the family.

The more vulnerable members of the clan are played with great sensitivity, starting with John Judd as Horace Giddings, Regina's husband who is physically weakened by heart disease. Nominally, the "good guy" of the bunch, Judd shows the character's dark side as well—and his torment over the failings of his life that he knows is close to its end. Rae Gray, who's gained attention around Chicago playing troubled contemporary adolescents, shows a new side of her talents in a period role as the daughter Alexandra who comes to realize and be shocked by the immorality rampant in her extended family. Mary Beth Fisher is heartbreaking as Oscar's alcoholic and lonely wife, Birdie. A well-known and highly regarded Chicago actress, Ms. Fisher completely submerges herself in her character. Cherene Snow and Dexter Zollicoffer give the black servants Addie and Cal a strength and —,balanced by their understanding of where they stand in the power structure—that defies easy stereotypes and adds another layer to the machinations of the household. Michael Canavan is the Chicago industrialist William Marshall with the plan to build a cotton mill in the south. Though present only in the play's first scene, Marshall's ruthless greed is evident and helps to set the tone of the play.

The performances are played out on a grand set by Todd Rosenthal that is not only awash in period detail, but has an unusual level of three-dimensionality. His creation of the Giddens manse includes a dining room, separated by walls with large windows looking into the drawing room where most of the action is played. Wishcamper stages a brief scene inside the dining room, into which we can see through the room's large interior windows and hear faintly. It's a minor sacrifice of clarity that gives us a sense of the house's depth, and goes beyond the relative flatness of proscenium staging. Changes in times of day and a general moodiness are suggested by David Lander's lighting, and Jenny Mannis' period costumes complete the process of taking us back to this very particular time and place.

Speaking of going back in time, I'm wishing I could do that to catch one of those long-gone Broadway productions of The Little Foxes. This was my first viewing of the piece, but with such a handsomely visualized and exquisitely acted production, I'm feeling fortunate to have caught this one and to see such a first-rate production on an American classic.

The Little Foxes will play the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through June 7, 2015. For tickets and additional information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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