Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through June 7
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Rapaciousness rules in “The Little Foxes,” Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play about the greedy Hubbard family, perhaps best known from the 1941 film starring Bette Davis as Regina Giddens.
In Goodman Theatre’s delectably entertaining production directed by Henry Wishcamper, that role is played by the regal Shannon Cochran whose masterfully manipulative Regina will go to any lengths to get what she wants. And what she wants, besides moving to Paris and indulging in the latest fashions, is to best her two brothers, Oscar and Ben Hubbard, and reap the greatest profits from an investment scheme to build an industrial cotton mill in the small Southern town in which the carefully plotted action takes place in the spring of 1900.
Set in the sumptuous living room of Regina’s Victorian home—stunningly designed by Todd Rosenthal with the dining room visible in back and a sweeping dark-wood staircase leading to the second floor—the story opens with her charming Northerner William Marshall (Michael Canavan), their soon-to-be partner in the venture to bring the “mill to the cotton,” as long as the siblings can come up with their share of the funds. The smart, suave Ben, gleefully portrayed by a sarcastic Larry Yando, and the coarser, not-so-bright Oscar, a suitably brutish Steve Pickering, inherited their father’s money and plan to use that, but none of it went to Regina, so she’s dependent on her dying banker husband, Horace (John Judd), for her $75,000. Her brothers, in turn, are dependent on her—or on getting Horace’s money some other way. One of the plans they float is to marry off Regina’s lively, intelligent daughter, Alexandra (Rae Gray) to Oscar’s idiot son, Leo (Dan Waller), who’s arguably as venal as his father.
Even taking into account that attitudes towards rampant capitalism, marital relations, and racism were different when the play was first produced, not to mention when it takes place, Hellman’s position on those who “eat the earth” is clear, as is the way she directs our sympathies. Those in favor of the mill are the evil ones out to exploit cheap labor for the greatest personal gain, rather than in providing employment and improving the community.
Those opposed—most adamantly to using Alexandra as a pawn—are the good guys, more or less. They include Horace, who almost manages to out-maneuver Regina, as her false veneer of concern for his health quickly gives way to scathing attacks, and Birdie (Mary Beth Fisher), Oscar’s verbally and physically abused wife. An aristocratic relic of the Old South who longs for life with her mother in their plantation home and realizes Oscar married her just to get his hands on its cotton fields, she’s turned to drink for solace but is determined not to let Alexandra’s fate mirror her own. “Zan” herself also objects to marrying her cousin; in fact, she’s ready to leave the toxic environment created by her mother and squabbling uncles. Another thing that distinguishes the better characters is that they’re nicer to the black servants, the all-seeing Addie (Cherene Snow) and Cal (Dexter Zollicoffer), who are both loyal to Horace.
“The Little Foxes” is so brazenly melodramatic that it would be hard to play it straight in this day and age. At the same time, outright campiness isn’t the right approach, either. Wishcamper steers a middle course that works reasonably well, though the most compelling performances tend to be the least flashy, chief among them Judd’s spot-on and surprisingly moving Horace. The director also adds bits of business that are amusing or annoying, depending on your expectations. For example, the tall, stately Regina occasionally slaps Oscar on top of his bald pate, simultaneously a sign of irritation, condescension, and affection.
While David Lander’s lighting beautifully captures the different times of day in the dark house, and Jenny Mannis’s period costumes are a delight (though a couple of Regina’s virtually sleeveless gowns look a bit too modern), Richard Woodbury’s original music and sound design—which rise to discordant crescendos to create cinematic effects, or so it seems—are over the top in a way that just doesn’t fit.
Although the social concerns of “The Little Foxes” still are relevant, the real reason to see the Goodman’s production is the fun of watching some of Chicago’s top actors tear into wonderfully juicy roles.