Sharp Claws 

Lillian Hellman's portrait of a family with predation in its blood

THE LITTLE FOXES Shattered Globe Theatre

"I belonged, on my mother's side, to a banking, storekeeping family from Alabama," wrote Lillian Hellman in her 1973 memoir Pentimento. "Sunday dinners were large [and] long, with high-spirited talk and laughter from the older people of who did what to whom, what good nigger had consented to thirty percent interest on his cotton crop and what bad nigger had made a timid protest, what new white partner had been outwitted." Though her teenage sense of righteous morality was outraged by the corruption she observed at her family's dinner table, Hellman recalled, "I began to think that greed and the cheating that is its usual companion were comic as well as evil and I began to like the family dinners with the talk of who did what to whom."

It's that mixture of horrified revulsion and amused fascination that makes Hellman's 1939 drama The Little Foxes such a durable and compelling work. This isn't only a classic work of theater, it's ripping good entertainment—suspenseful, sharp-witted, thought-provoking, sometimes harrowing, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. And it's a fabulous vehicle for good ensemble acting, as Shattered Globe Theatre's fine revival makes abundantly clear.

The central figure, Regina Hubbard Giddens, is one of the great antiheroines of American literature: monstrous but also human, ruthless and cunning but also full of grit, vigor, intelligence, and dark wit. Modeled on Hellman's grandmother Sophie—a German Jew whose family settled in New Orleans in the 1850s—Regina is deeply frustrated because, as a woman living in 1900 Alabama, she's relegated to second-class status. Her late father left all his money to her brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, even though she's smarter and shrewder than both of them put together. She's financially dependent on her husband Horace Giddens—a wealthy businessman with a serious heart condition—although their relationship went sour years ago. At the play's start, Regina and Horace haven't slept together in ten years.

When Regina and her brothers get an opportunity to invest in a cotton mill a Chicago businessman wants to build in their town, Regina must coax her share of the investment out of Horace, who wants no part of the deal—or any deal involving his wife's rapacious family.

Many critics have analyzed The Little Foxes as an attack on the racism of the jim crow south or a protest against predatory capitalism. Some detractors, citing Hellman's unabashed liberal-left politics, have called it communist propaganda. As the program note for this 70th-anniversary revival points out, today's "government bailouts, predatory loans, and the socialism/capitalism debate" render it more significant than ever. But what strikes me most about the play is its depiction of the obstacles its female characters confront, and the choices they must make. The Hubbard clan's other matriarch is Regina's genteel and eccentric sister-in-law Birdie, wife of the stupider of Regina's two brothers, Oscar—a vulgar bully who married Birdie for her family's cotton fields. Delicate where Regina is tough, submissive where Regina is assertive, she's the victim Regina is determined not to be.

Yet the two are much alike, trapped in the inferior position imposed upon them by custom. And Ben and Oscar are intent on perpetuating custom by arranging a marriage between Oscar and Birdie's rascally, feckless son Leo, and Alexandra, Regina and Horace's 17-year-old daughter—a sweet and spirited girl pulled between the influences of her mother and her aunt.

Owning a piece of a cotton mill would launch the Hubbards from upper-middle-class prosperity to genuine wealth. To Ben and Oscar, riches mean joining Alabama's ruling aristocracy. For Regina, they represent a chance to get the hell out. She dreams of going to Chicago, with its "crowds of people and theatres and lovely women." She wants freedom, and she'll do anything to get it, whether it's using her sex appeal to charm the Chicago businessman or—but that would be giving away the ending. Suffice it to say that The Little Foxes is about people who will lie, cheat, steal, blackmail, and even murder to get what they want.

The Little Foxes is a well-made play in the classic style, though in this staging the original three acts have been compressed into two. The opening scene is a textbook example of traditional dramaturgy, as minor characters set the scene with exposition-packed chitchat, paving the way for the entrance of the star playing Regina.

Still, though The Little Foxes was originally a vehicle for Tallulah Bankhead, it works equally well as an ensemble piece. Director Brandon Bruce has made fine use of Shattered Globe's two longtime leading ladies, Linda Reiter and Eileen Niccolai. As Regina, Reiter is less imposing than Bette Davis in the memorable film version, but she brings a flinty energy to the role. Her Regina has never been taken seriously by the men who control her world. You can imagine what it was like for her growing up, trying to get a word in edgewise as her garrulous brothers bantered with each other. And you can sense her biding her time, coiled like a viper, waiting to strike. Niccolai's Birdie, meanwhile, is funny and touching, gay and sad in equal measure—a good-hearted if somewhat silly woman who has long watched in helpless horror as her husband and son destroyed her illusions of gentlemanly gentility.

As wily Ben, Kevin Kenneally suggests a scheming eunuch in some ancient royal court. His offhanded reference to his permanent bachelor status reminds us that he has channeled all his personality and sexuality into the acquisition of riches and position. Don Bender's boorish Oscar is a self-important but incompetent father figure, determined to uphold family values even if it means devaluing the family. Ted Hoerl's weak and weary Horace makes clear the heroic, ruinous cost of trying to fight Regina.

Strong support comes from Carolyn Nelson as Regina's cook Addie, Madeline Long and Drew Schad as the ill-matched Alexandra and Leo, Robert Dennison as the Chicago businessman, and Bryson Engelen in what seems to be a throwaway role as Regina's butler Cal, until it suddenly emerges as crucial in the final act.

The production's one flaw stems from the limitations of Shattered Globe's intimate space at Greenhouse Theater. Though set designer Melania Lancy has turned the small stage into a credible southern drawing room—complete with white columns and an adjacent dining room—a low ceiling prevented her from delivering the long staircase the play's thrilling climax demands. It is to the credit of the cast that they overcome this problem with their textured performances—especially Reiter, whose haunting exit makes a fitting end to a gripping play.v

Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com. And for more on theater visit our Onstage blog.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Albert Williams

Agenda Teaser

Galleries & Museums
The Dead Know Everything Western Exhibitions
April 15
Galleries & Museums
Technical Images Document Gallery
April 15

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories

Follow Us

Sign up for newsletters »

 Early Warnings
 Food & Drink
 Reader Recommends
 Reader Events and Offers