Lillian Hellman’s drama about a Southern family motivated by secrets, lies, abuse, and greed comes alive at Arena Stage with a stellar cast deftly directed by Kyle Donnelly. The setting is Alabama in 1900, a state still recovering from the Civil War. Addie (Kim James Bey) and Cal (David Emerson Toney), no longer slaves, are still servants in the Giddens household. (And truly the only ones with any sense of right and wrong.) Regina Hubbard Giddens (Marg Helgenberger) seems to dominate the family, but she’s frustrated with her financial situation. In the early 20th century, only sons were considered heirs. So Regina seethes watching her brothers Benjamin (Edward Gero) and Oscar (Gregory Linington) enjoy the family’s wealth while she remains dependent on her husband, Horace (Jack Willis).
Hellman’s play holds up surprisingly well with themes that continue to resonate, particularly during this election year. The Little Foxes is part of Arena’s Lillian Hellman Festival. Watch on the Rhine, starring Marsha Mason, will be produced later in the season. There will also be staged readings, film screenings, and panel discussions to explore Hellman’s body of work.
Megan Graves and Kim James Bey
Superficially, the Giddens home has all the trappings of affluence and stability, the stage setting reflecting a more than comfortable existence for the family. (Set design, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; lighting, Nancy Schertler). Around the elegantly set dining room table, Regina plays hostess entertaining her brothers, Oscar’s wife, Birdie (Isabel Keating), and their son, Leo (Stanton Nash). But tensions roil underneath that cordial surface. Regina, who married Horace for his money, is disappointed that the match has not provided her with the financial freedom she desires. Oscar is dismissive and abusive of Birdie who self-medicates with alcohol. The Giddens daughter, Alexandra, called Zan (Megan Graves), adores her father, Horace, who has been away getting treatment for a serious heart condition. Largely ignored by Regina, Zan is taken under Birdie’s wing and watched over by Addie.
Gregory Linington, Edward Gero, and Stanton Nash
Benjamin and Oscar are out to increase their wealth by investing in a cotton mill. They need $75,000 and want Regina to ask Horace for the money. Horace has already given the brothers a thumbs down. (Oscar’s other plan for obtaining the money, to have Leo marry Alexandra, also is rejected by Horace.) So Leo, who works at the bank, steals Horace’s railroad bonds from a safety deposit box. Regina’s scheme to blackmail her brothers about the theft for a percentage of the mill is thwarted by Horace. Regina succeeds in the end, finally achieving financial independence, but at a huge cost.
Isabel Keating and Marg Helgenberger
As Regina, Helgenberger is a force to be reckoned with. Everything about her, from her strict posture to her steely gaze, sends the message that she is determined to succeed. There’s no evidence of the warm and helpful Catherine Willows from CSI. When she speaks, those honeyed southern tones are tinged with vinegar. The contrast with her daughter, Zan, is striking. Graves projects a youthful innocence in the first act, but by the end of the play, we witness her transformation, rejecting her mother’s values and ready to stand on her own. Even at this point, Regina can’t help but damn her daughter with faint praise. “Why Alexandra! You have spirit after all. I used to think you were all sugar water.”
Jack Willis, Marg Helgenberger, and Isabel Keating
Horace doesn’t appear until Act II, but when Willis enters, the effect is immediate. Moving slowly with a wooden walker, Willis’ Horace nonetheless is a powerful presence. There’s a touching moment between Horace, Birdie, Zan, and Addie, the four most likable characters in the household and in the play. They are comfortable with each other, their fondness and respect for Horace evident. Birdie, who overindulges in the elderberry wine served by Addie, has a laughing fit where she confesses she dislikes her son, Leo. (Keating’s performance here, and really throughout the play, is remarkable.) Horace’s medical condition adds to his concern for the three women and his worry that he won’t be around to protect them much longer. But he does what he can, telling Addie that he has left her $2,700, and revising his will to take care of Zan.
In contrast, Regina, never the doting wife, is not happy to have him home, and becomes further agitated when she discovers what he plans to do about the stolen bonds. She holds back nothing, telling Horace how much she despises him. And when he suffers a heart attack, she refuses to go upstairs to get his medication. He makes an attempt to climb the stairs, but collapses before he reaches the top. (The clever set, which includes a winding staircase, allows us to witness Horace’s futile climb.)
There are no real winners in the end. That quest for wealth and power at the expense of others always takes a toll. “Maybe it’s easy for the dying to be honest,” Horace tells Regina. “You’ll wreck the country, you and your kind, if they let you. But not me, I’ll die my own way, and I’ll do it without making the world worse. I’ll leave that to you.”
The Little Foxes
By Lillian Hellman
Directed by Kyle Donnelly
1101 Sixth Street SW
Through October 30, 2016
Top photo: Edward Gero, Gregory Linington, Isabel Keating, and Marg Helgenberg
Photos by C. Stanley Photography