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Review: 'The Little Foxes' at Pasadena Playhouse

May 31, 2009 |  2:32 pm

Little foxes 1 

Just because a play creaks doesn’t mean that it has lost its mojo.
Take Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” now in revival at Pasadena Playhouse. The production, directed by Dámaso Rodriguez and starring Kelly McGillis, doesn’t do much to soften the work’s melodramatic edges, but it allows us to powerfully experience the drama's angry relevance.

Indignation was the wellspring of Hellman’s artistic inspiration -- hostility was her muse. And in this saga of the insidiously corrupt Hubbard family, a damning portrait of Southern arrivistes who are prepared to exploit the land and its people (blood relatives not excluded) for a fatter bank account, the playwright had every reason to swell with condemnation.

What’s interesting is the way the 1941 movie — with Bette Davis channeling Tallulah Bankhead, who originated the role of Regina in the 1939 Broadway premiere — was interpreted by some as a case study in the debased morality of a particular household. The New York Times described the film as “a family of evil people poisoning everything they touch.” But after Wall Street’s latest crash-and-burn excesses, it’s impossible to see the Hubbards as anything but a cautionary symbol of greedy America.  And Hellman's title, borrowed from the King James version of the Song of Solomon ("Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes"), should leave little doubt about the larger implications. 

Little foxes 2 “The play could have been written yesterday,” a Pasadena Playhouse patron could be heard commenting after the curtain call. Well, yes and no. The social critique of this drama, set in 1900 in the Deep South, still stings, but the playwriting undeniably belongs to yesteryear. The plot is methodically foursquare, and Hellman has her characters huffing and puffing their conflicts to the point of mustache-twirling villainy.

Rodriguez’s production has little interest in updating the work. The boldest stroke comes courtesy of Gary Wissman’s set, which lends Regina's living room an open, almost expressionist backdrop.

Generally speaking, the cast aims less for realism than a charged surface vitality. The acting has an anachronistic broadness that owes a debt as much to the 19th century stage as the golden age of cinema. This can take getting used to for modern theatergoers primed to appreciate psychological nuance, but the upside is a crackling tension when well executed.

McGillis, that “Top Gun” stunner turned classical theater veteran, plays Regina, a devious battler hellbent on outfoxing her brothers, Oscar (Marc Singer) and Benjamin (Steve Vinovich), who are investing in the construction of a cotton mill and need a chunk of her husband’s money for the deal to go through. Keenly aware of just how underhanded these Hubbard men are, Regina stands ready to use all of her wiles to ensure that she gets a fat enough share of the proceeds.
This Regina is a domestic warrior, a middle-aged American Hedda Gabler (a role McGillis essayed on Broadway), who with a change of clothes would find herself perfectly at home on “Desperate Housewives.” But if this brash turn exhibits prime-time soap opera flourishes, it nevertheless delivers the suspenseful goods.

Credit Geoff Pierson, who portrays Horace, Regina’s seriously ill yet still formidable husband, for injecting a note of sympathetic humanity into these turbulent proceedings. Horace's condition has forced him to consider the difference between business and marauding, a distinction the Hubbards (including his wife) would rather gloss over. Pierson captures both the physical weakness and righteous awakening of his character, whose affection for his daughter, Alexandra (Rachel Sondag), carries a profound concern for her future in this viper’s nest.

As Oscar’s wife, Birdie, a sensitive music lover of Southern gentry stock who has succumbed to drink, Julia Duffy (who earned a place in television posterity as the hilariously haughty maid on “Newhart”) cuts a poignant figure even if she at times over-signals her character’s pathetic plight. Birdie, whose family originally owned the plantation now under Hubbard control, serves as a haunting reminder of the damage wrought by these rapacious capitalists -- a point powerfully underscored by the presence of the tireless black servants, Addie (the excellent Yvette Cason) and Cal (Cleavant Derricks), who have been trampled upon even longer and more unconscionably. 

The scene in which Birdie, Horace, Alexandra and the help are briefly free of the noxious company of the rest of the clan amounts to a kind of utopian tableau — a world that Hellman, in all her productive belligerence, would have us fight to make permanent.

The production would doubtlessly be more effective if Oscar and his son, Leo (Shawn Lee), were played as more than just bumbling crackers. And does Benjamin need to come across as such a blowhard? A little more gray would have added much-needed dramatic shading.

Visually, the production isn’t as crisp as it could be. Mary Vogt’s costumes look better from a distance, and the nonrealistic dimension of Wissman’s set, except for one crucial staircase moment, is more of a distraction than an enhancement.

Hellman’s castigating drama, however, could hardly be more timely. Regina’s whiplash-inducing machinations may strike us now as a bit dated, but the play's social skewering remains satisfyingly fresh.

-- Charles McNulty

"The Little Foxes," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino, Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 28. Tickets: $32 to $67 (626) 356-7529.  Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.

Photo: Top: Kelly McGillis, left, and Julia Duffy. Bottom: McGillis. Credits: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times