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CPH examines greed, ambition and misguided principles in “The Little Foxes”

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Lillian Hellman, author of “The Little Foxes,” which is now in production at the Cleveland Playhouse, was a rebel with many causes.  An independent woman in an era before the women’s rights and liberation movements, she had strong political and societal opinions.  Because of her liberal affiliations she was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  She was “a smoker, a drinker, a lover, and a fighter, who took stands against and placed a negative spotlight on greed, ambition and misguided principles.”  She was an advocate for the downtrodden.  These principles are at the foundation of “The Little Foxes.”

“The Little Foxes,” is set in the beautifully appointed home of Horace and Regina Giddens in a small Alabama town at the turn of the century.  Regina is one of three Hubbard siblings.  Her brothers, Ben and Oscar, have inherited a store that takes financial advantage of the area’s Black population.

Regina married Horace, not out of love, but because he was her ticket to getting the “things” she wanted out of life.  Her brother, Ben, is a controlling schemer who wants to jump onto the success bandwagon of the Gilded Age of the 1900s, no matter the cost.  Brother Oscar, lazy, psychologically weak and undisciplined, married Birdie as his entrance into the prestige of being part of the “old south. “ He verbally and physically abuses Birdie, who is too timid to stand up to Oscar’s attacks. Their unlikeable son, Leo, is a carbon copy of his father, willing to be Ben’s pawn, in order to be financially successful.

In contrast to the Hubbards, Horace, his daughter Alexandra, the black housekeepers, Addie and Cal, and Birdie, are decent and respectable people.

The Hubbard’s latest scheme is the building of a cotton mill in their town.  The idea is sound, as it would avoid shipping the south’s raw cotton to the north, thus insuring profits.  The problem?  They don’t have the money to pull off the transaction, so they make a deal with a Chicago company.  They scheme to get the seed money from Horace, who is ill and in the hospital in Baltimore.  The opportunity comes when Leo, who is working at his uncle Horace’s bank, finds out that there are $80,000 worth of negotiable bonds in a strong box in his uncle’s office.

Intrigue increases when Horace returns home, and Regina’s disdain for everything about him, except his money, becomes obvious.  Horace has a heart attack.  Will Regina give him his needed medicine?  Will the stolen bond scheme work? Will Regina’s blackmail of her brothers succeed, or will Ben’s parting remark, “What was a man in a wheelchair doing on a staircase?” be the undoing of Regina?  Will Alexandra be swept up in the family intrigue or will she flee?

The CPH production, under the focused direction of Laura Kepley, is intriguing.  The script, which is written in a traditional 1930s format of three acts (exposition, telling the tale, and resolution) has been compressed by eliminating the intermission between acts II and III, and tightening some dialogue.  The pacing fits the southern way of life, yet doesn’t drag.  Accents are finely honed, and character motivations clear.

The cast is universally excellent.  Maggie Lacey creates a Regina who is evil incarnate.  Cameron Folmar is scheming and snarly as Ben.  Jerry Richardson clearly creates Oscar as a despicable spineless bully.  Nick Barbato presents a Leo, who is as whining, weak willed duplicate of his father, Oscar.

Donald Carrier is a mirror of perseverance and moral strength as Horace.  The lovely Megan King creates an Alexandra who is the shining hope that something good may well emerge from this dysfunctional family. Heather Anderson Boll is appropriately bewildered and manipulated as Birdie, a true southern belle, better suited for cotillions than real life.  Sherrie Tolliver is impressive as the strong willed but gentle Addie, the Carrier family maid and Alexandra’s guide and protector.  Kim Sullivan has nice comic moments as Cal, the family butler.  Robert Ellis presents William Marshall as a businessman who may feel comfortable with being part of a scheme with some shady overtones.

One of the difficulties of doing a period piece is whether to be true to the period set and costume designs.  Lex Liang, the production’s scenic and costume designer, based on Kepley’s desire to give a modern feel to the production, has taken the influence of the 1900s transitional aesthetic era and eliminated the heavy look of the furniture and costumes, creating sleek modifications in the style, thus retaining the right feel and vision, but not being absolutely true to the era.  The gorgeous set and costumes work well in creating the right illusion.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” is a classic American play which probes into the values, ethics and morals of a group of southerners at the turn of the century.  This is a play and production well worth seeing thanks to Hellman’s writing, Kepley’s directing, the excellent acting, and well-conceived technical aspects.  It makes for a fine opening offering in this, CPH’s ninety-ninth year.

Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” runs through October 5, 2014 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to