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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Review: Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” is Both Daring & Beautiful

How do theaters engage a modern audience with an old classic play? By being very true to the text and isolating it; by revealing that art mimics life and ideas haven’t changed much through time.

There must be a reason why the classic play “The Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman has been brought back to circulation. It was on Broadway last year, and now locals can have a front row seat at Palm Beach Dramaworks to watch it.

“The Little Foxes” has very modern sensibilities and it’s a pretty gripping story about a southern family’s determination to control a lucrative business in a small town in Alabama, at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a drawing room drama that was very popular stylistically in the late 1930s and the early 1940s, in which you put a single set, a group of individuals with a heightened group of problems—extreme conflict—and then you solve it within the two-and-a-half hours that you have on the stage.

When you look at the top 100 plays, you’ll find “The Little Foxes” title somewhere listed. Hellman was a woman and a playwright ahead of her time, but I doubt her purpose was to write a moral statement, though her point of view has been studied by many scholars looking to find the reason behind this play. Perhaps the title of “The Little Foxes” may offer a clue. It comes from Song of Solomon in King James’ Bible: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.”

The fox is a small creature that’s seeking for an opportunity to strike. They are known to be destructive to vineyards, and while they’re not bears nor lions, and they’re not necessarily predatorial, they know how to maneuver. And, you might not see them coming for you.

The movie “The Little Foxes,” released in the 1940s, starring powerful Bette Davis was very popular, but that was so long ago. It was somewhat re-written for the screen, of course, as all play-to-film adaptations often are. Hellman actually wrote the screenplay, and it was well known at the time that she was a socialist, quite outspoken, with communistic tendencies in her private life. So, was she using this play to make some kind of very powerful statement about capitalism versus socialism, as well as greed, and the disruptive and destructive power of money and what it does to people?

“Yes, no, maybe. All of the above,” said J. Barry Lewis, director of the show. “We don’t know; she’s not here to answer truthfully, but she did comment once that it was a story about a family and their insatiable need for wealth.”

Hellman creates good characters for the stage, but they are not nice people as the audience finds out as the plot unravels, leaving us to question, ‘Isn’t that a curious statement about man’s infallibility and the way he misses or understands the responsibility that we have towards each other or the world in which we live?”

According to Lewis, it’s up to us, the audience, to hear some of those moments that are human and universal. In any play, you always look for what it’s called “the spine of the play.” And that is, where you can find in the text that one, two or three lines, or even a paragraph long dialog which the whole play revolves around.

Interesting enough, in this play, the playwright gives the smaller, lesser characters those very strong words. The conversation is about “those people who eat the earth, and there are those who standby and watch them eat the earth.” Very strong words that come from the house’s maid, named Addie, played by Carbonell Award winner, Broadway actress, Avery Sommers. What I found most interesting is that these words are said not by one of the main players, but by the one who is the observer of the action. This section of the play acts like a mirror, reflecting real human nature in Hellman’s characters, who are despicable, and yet, we’re fascinated by their ability to engage the moment somehow that is both frightening, horrific, daring and beautiful at the same time.

The play begins with a dinner party hosted by Regina Middens [Kathy McCafferty] at her nicely decorated Giddens’ house. Regina and her brothers, Ben Hubbard [Dennis Creaghan] and Oscar Hubbard [James Andreassi] are wooing William Marshall [Frank Converse], a Chicago business man in a deal that may just skyrocket them into incredible wealth.

The Hubbard brothers are ruthless men, and they will do anything to ensure the deal is made. Regina, on the other end, has been working on this deal for months and waiting, mainly on her husband Horace Giddens [Rob Donohue], who is ill and has been away at a wellness center for five months. The problem is, Horace has not replied to her multiple requests to invest in the deal, even though all he has to do is sign off on it. From Regina’s point of view, his delaying is a sign of indecisiveness. And for her, it’s a life of waiting that drives her to some drastic actions later on in the play.

Review: Lillian Hellman’s "The Little Foxes” is Both Daring & Beautiful
Denise Cormier and Caitlin Cohn as they perform in the season opening production for Palm Beach Dramaworks “The Little Foxes.” | Photo: Samantha Mighdoll

The protagonists of this play are the women. Birdie Hubbard [Denise Cormier] is a victim in her husband’s house, and while she doesn’t like her own son Leo [Taylor Anthony Miller] and the weak man he has become, she readily puts herself on the line of fire for her niece, Alexandra Giddens [Caitlin Cohn]. In an emotional scene, Birdie begs Alexandra to run as far from the Hubbards as she can, before they marry her off and turn her into a carbon copy of herself [Birdie].

If there is a female character that personifies Hellman is Regina Giddens. She is portrayed as a woman who’s trying to finally move her life in the direction that she wants. But she’s a woman bound by her time, when there were restrictions on women—not being able to have a say in their own future, not having financial means to make choices, or power within a family dynamic to have a voice, especially in this particular southern culture.

Regina has been raised to please and placate men to get what she wants. From basic securities, to things she wants in her home, to up the ladder to what she wants for the remainder of her life. She’s trying to procure her own investment in this family business deal, because she believes it’s going to take her out of this small town in Alabama and up to Chicago, which is where she’s always wanted to live, but has never had the means, dependence, or ability to make her move. Regina’s got the ambition and the smarts, but she doesn’t have the means to make those choices for herself. This business deal is her last effort to finally break away from the town and the family that, in her mind, have held her back.

Hellman was punished for her personal life choices and her independence as a woman in Hollywood in the 1940s. But there’s much more room for that kind of character, flaws and all, in theater. Scrutinized for being vocal, Regina, just like the character Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” or today’s “Olive Pope,” a story about a highly ambitious woman who does some highly questionable things to advance her career, these women have been villainized by critics, and punished for being ambitious and for setting themselves free.

There’s a recurring line, where the eldest brother Ben, keeps reminding Regina: “Women get much further with a smile.” But, that’s not Regina’s nature. And that’s something Ben or Oscar will never understand. In their eyes, she is a trophy in the business deal, the eye candy that will bring in the charm, and do all the things that women are expected to do.

In this day and age, Hellman’s intricate play still manages to reflect relevant issues in a ruthless business world, where women are often exploited and even harassed, and where business tycoons have built their empires with the blood and sweat of the weak and poor.

A brilliant storyteller, Hellman’s word play and narrative structure of the story is superb. Good playwrights look to society to find their best material, and she didn’t have to look too far when she wrote “The Little Foxes.” She found close to her, characters who were reminiscent of her real family. But she took those elements to the extreme, like any good storyteller. In this play, the playwright shows the beauty and the dirty truth of the human heart. And this is very relevant today, because the human heart hasn’t changed.

The Little Foxes runs thru November 12th at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. To get your tickets, or for more information, call 514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.

Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” is Both Daring & Beautiful. Pretty gripping story with modern sensibilities. The Little Foxes is such a brilliant play.


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