Exceptional cast powers riveting revival of 'The Little Foxes' at Goodman
One thing about the domestic strife that ensnares the titular characters in Lillian Hellman's 1939 domestic drama "The Little Foxes": It makes any family friction that's chafing you pale by comparison.
Better still, it makes for riveting theater, as evidenced by the swift, muscular revival that opened this week at the Goodman Theatre. Directed by Henry Wischcamper, Goodman's fiercely acted production of the classic American morality tale features one of the finest ensembles I've seen onstage in some time.
Set in 1900 and underscored by betrayal, selfishness, violence and arrogance, "The Little Foxes" is a keen, unflinching critique of greed and the kind of cutthroat capitalism practiced by members of the Hubbard clan. The Hubbards are wealthy Alabama merchants with a working cotton plantation and impoverished neighbors. However, the surviving siblings aren't content with mere wealth. They want excessive wealth, and they believe they can get it by partnering with a Chicago businessman interested in building a cotton mill in the South to take advantage of its cheap, nonunion labor.
As the play opens, their plans appear to be working, to the delight of Regina Giddens, played by the commanding, deliciously calculating Shannon Cochran whose willowy stature (she stands about a head taller than almost everyone else) offers a powerful contradiction of early 20th-century reality where power rested entirely with men.
William Marshall (Michael Canavan) agrees to partner with Regina and her brothers Benjamin (the terrific Larry Yando, who pairs genteel ruthlessness with the commanding swagger of a man without a conscience) and the bullying Oscar, a wife-beater and unrepentant racist (Steve Pickering, whose barely contained menace makes for some of the show's most unsettling moments). The target of his abuse is his wife, browbeaten Birdie (Mary Beth Fisher in a delicately vulnerable performance), who Oscar married for her family's cotton fields and who is, to him, prey.
The problem is the siblings need $75,000 to seal the deal. They appealed to Regina's estranged husband -- the banker Horace (beautifully played by John Judd), as a man gathering in his waning days his last shreds of decency -- but he's ignored their requests. They consider stealing Horace's bonds, a plan unwittingly advanced by Leo (Dan Waller), Oscar's dull, slacker son who works at Horace's bank. There's also a suggestion that Leo marry Regina's and Horace's 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Rae Gray) as a way of keeping the family fortune intact.
The silent witnesses to this dysfunctional family drama are the Giddens' servants Cal (Dexter Zollicoffer) and Addie (Cherene Snow). Ersatz mother to Alexandra, Addie is also the play's most perceptive character, holding accountable for the sorry state of the South not just the pillagers, but the good folks who do nothing to stop them.
Kudos to Jenny Mannis for the lovely period costumes, including the arresting green velvet gown Regina wears when we first meet her. The color of money, the gown has a high neck and cap sleeves that leave her toned arms bare, suggesting Regina is more powerful than anyone suspects.
Overall, the production has a kind of cinematic quality, resulting in part from designer David Lander's artful illumination of the Giddens' grand home. Set designer Todd Rosenthal earns praise for his sumptuous, two-story set with its polished wood, brass chandeliers, provincial oil paintings and soaring windows flanked by luxurious velvet drapes.
Wishcamper's direction is impeccable. Particularly impressive is the attention he pays to small gestures, subtle inflections and fleeting expressions. There's much more than scratching, clawing and snapping in "The Little Foxes." There's the humor, emotion and gut-clenching tension (Horace struggling up the stairs late in the third act is especially unsettling), and Wishcamper and his exceptional cast reveal it all.
And while I could have done without the musical punctuation -- each act concluded with an instrumental interlude, usually dissonant and accompanied by a violin tremolo -- that's a minor quibble in what is a major accomplishment for Goodman Theatre.
"The Little Foxes"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, through June 7. Also 7:30 p.m. May 26 and 2 p.m. May 20, 27 and June 3. No 2 p.m. show May 16. No 7:30 p.m. show May 24 and 31. A reading of "Another Part of the Forest," Lillian Hellman's prequel to "The Little Foxes," takes place at 2 p.m. May 16
Running time: About 2 hours, 45 minutes with two intermissions
Parking: $21 parking (with Goodman validation) at the Government Center Self Park at Clark and Lake streets
Rating: For teens and older