Monday, May 18, 2015

Goodman Production of 'The Little Foxes' Provides a Solid, If Not Especially Sly, Introduction to a Classic -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Little Foxes
a play by Lillian Hellman
directed by Henry Wishcamper
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 7

Except for one lower-level Introduction to Theater college course nearly 30 years ago, I've never had any formal education to accompany, abet or amplify my theatergoing experience.

Thus in becoming something of an aficionado over the past 15 years, in addition to attending numerous musicals and contemporary plays, I've made some attempt to indoctrinate myself to many classic works and writers.

This has included seeing multiple plays each by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, August Wilson, Lanford Wilson and other playwriting legends, as well as Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Awake and Sing by Clifford Odets and Our Town by Thornton Wilder, among other canonical works. 

Although Lillian Hellman is seemingly of a stature to fit among those storied names, I've only now seen two of her plays, with the first--which was her first, 1934's The Children's Hour--coming just last year, after never having noted earlier opportunities.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
I greatly enjoyed that play, in part because of a terrific performance by a friend and others in the cast of a rather intimate production, but also because in revolving around two schoolteachers who are accused of lesbianism by a malicious student, it felt quite topical, even contemporary, 80 years after it was written.

I had similar hopes for The Little Foxes, seemingly Hellman's quintessential work, which is now being staged at Chicago's Goodman Theatre under the direction of Henry Wishcamper.

As part of my subscription series, the play--written in 1939, set in 1900--was worth my time, even in clocking in at a hefty 2:45 including 2 intermissions.

Particularly after having seen The Children's Hour, I was glad to expand my familiarity with Hellman. And as enacted by a fine cast within an exquisite set design by Todd Rosenthal encompassing the interior of a Southern mansion, the writer's tale of greed, heartlessness, manipulation, contrivance, malevolence, misogyny and worse--within the confines of a single family--certainly didn't feel entirely unfamiliar in 2015.

Shannon Cochran stars as Regina Giddens and seems to well-handle a role embodied by such luminaries as Talullah Bankhead (who originated it on Broadway), Bette Davis (who starred in the 1941 movie), Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing.

Regina is the wife of the infirm but genteel Horace Giddens (John Judd), mother of Alexandra (Rae Gray) and sister of her neighboring brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard (Larry Yando, Steve Pickering, both terrific), the latter married to Birdie (Mary Beth Fisher), with Leo (Dan Waller) being their son.

The Hubbard siblings, including Regina, are essentially a trio of rich assholes, who act atrociously to all around them--including each other--as they scheme to get richer through a lucrative business deal for which they need Horace's participation. Such hasn't been forthcoming, in part because Horace has been hospitalized at Johns Hopkins for months due to a grave heart condition, but he's eventually cajoled to return home.

On both a macro and micro level, the dexterity of Hellman's writing is apparent, with her scorn for avarice consistent with the leftist political leanings for which she would become well-known.

Yet while I applaud the underlying themes of The Little Foxes--whose title comes from a line in the Bible; see Wikipedia for details--and found the acting at Goodman to be typically first-rate, I appreciated the play mostly on an academic awareness level and would recommend it primarily to those seeking likewise, rather than truly riveting 21st century entertainment superior to myriad other local options.

For all of the drama's fine points, it essentially takes the better part of three hours to convey the notion that treating others like crap--from one's kin onward--is not only deplorable but ultimately non-fulfilling. 

And while it's a pleasure to watch Cochran, Pickering and especially Yando enact Hellman's script in costumes and accents of yore, their characters are so despicable--openly racist, classist, wife-beating and rather close to murderous, in addition to being just cold, greedy bastards--that watching a dated play revolve around them just isn't all that acutely enjoyable.

It seems silly to assail Hellman's legendary scenario--as The Little Foxes stands as one of America's greatest melodramas and morality plays, according to the Tribune's Chris Jones--but assuming the playwright meant for the characters of Horace, Alexandra, Birdie and servants Addie and Cal to counterbalance the vileness of Regina, Ben, Oscar and the wormy Leo, the former aren't given quite enough heft or stage time to make the polemic on good and evil feel properly weighted.

And the ending--which I won't reveal--isn't weighty enough in light of the considerable wait for it to arrive.

While Wishcamper's choice to bookend each scene with blasts of melodramatic classical music--such as in Golden Age B-movies--adds a bit of whimsy to the rather frosty proceedings, I predominantly found the obtuse strings to be excessively campy and unnecessary, even off-putting.

All told, I'm glad to have seen The Little Foxes and would be happy to discuss it with those who undoubtedly have derived much more from the hallowed piece.

But on a first viewing, I can't say I perceive it on par with Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day's Journey into Night or other staples of the theatrical universe, with all of those just cited also centered around imperfect familial interactions.

And among my still-sparse familiarity with Lillian Hellman, I continue to prefer my previous foray into her first play, The Children's Hour, a good deal more than my introduction to this, her most famous one.

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