Raising Hellman

A writing professor once warned me that no matter how hard a playwright tries to avoid it, one character in the piece usually represents the writer, and that role often evolves into the most meaty and authentic. Sure enough, upon yet another examination of The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman's classic play of grotesque greed among noveau-riche Southerners, I clearly see that Hellman, a daughter of the South herself, wrote her own cool wit and devilish self-confidence into the arch bitch lead character, Regina Giddens.

Although this is my third viewing of the piece, and the two prior actresses playing Regina were Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor, I haven't seen the violent, multifaceted role brought to life more coyly, sensually, and intelligently than by Pat Nesbit, whose energetic performance at the Caldwell Theatre Company demands attention from even the most narcoleptic audience members.

Under the direction of Michael Hall, Nesbit creates Regina without heart, without soul, but with a dedicated self-love and passion toward getting the millions she knows she deserves. The only daughter of the Shylock-ish Hubbard family, a crass clan that blithely shoots animals others need for food, and one that made its new money off the flesh and tears of local blacks, Regina was cheated out of the family inheritance. Now suddenly, via a promising business venture with northern investors, she sees a way not only to get her fair share, but some of her brothers' money as well. And these bro's heartily deserve a witch for a sister: Oscar loves to hit his aristocratic but feeble wife Birdie, and Ben blasts out devious orders like a buffoon pumped full of vitriol. Even the second generation carries on the amoral venom: Oscar's son, Leo, steals, lies, and whores around with great regularity.

Hellman, a writer persecuted by the McCarthy witchhunts and a sharp observer of human foibles, sets the "evil" Hubbards against the "good folk" of the family -- Birdie the battered wife, Regina's sick husband Horace, Horace's and Regina's gentle daughter Alexandra, and naturally, the requisite wise black servant Addie. Knowing that Hellman was too smart to live under any delusions, you can guess who wins. But the twists, turns, double-dealings, and family bloodletting keep you guessing for quite some time.

As the play was first produced to great acclaim in 1939, The Little Foxes offered old-fashioned, three-act drama. But it remains a jolly-good, nasty little story, just as apropos today as it was then. In fact, the Eighties was a decade punctuated by people like the Hubbards, who defined the phrase, "The love of money is the root of all evil."

Both Michael Hall's direction and Frank Bennett's set design are flawless, bringing to vivid and authentic life the style and sting of the wealthy South at the turn of the century. And while some of the acting seems pushed and overstylized -- particularly Jonh Felix as Ben, John Gardiner as the northern investor, and Jilanne Marie Klaus as Alexandra -- the ensemble cast works together adequately, and some performances make the evening more than worthwhile. Kenneth Kay projects quiet sadism as Oscar, Avery Sommers's Addie is the perfect maternal black maid, and Peter Haig is convincing and noble as the enfeebled Horace. Then again, it's Regina's show all the way, and as mentioned, Nesbit makes every moment sizzle.

The only noticeably weak spot in the production belongs to Viki Boyle, who gasp-whines her interpretation of Birdie, making the character more irritating than sympathetic.

We've seen these dirty tricks and family feuds many times now, through the pens of Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, and Sam Shepard. But Hellman writes so briskly and expertly that the original still holds up. I won't rush to persuade cutting-edge audiences to see it. I will, however, note that it would be nice if television and movies borrowed from the great plots of the old stage and presented this quality of drama (like Playhouse 90 and Hallmark Hall of Fame offerings, for instance) instead of the ubiquitous shallow crap. At least the Hubbards emerge as real people and Hellman's story makes perfect sense. That's a lot more than you can say about Home Alone 2 or almost any program on the three major networks.

THE LITTLE FOXES by Lillian Hellman, directed by Michael Hall; with Avery Sommers, John Archie, Viki Boyle, Kenneth Kay, Jim Ryan, Pat Nesbit, John Gardiner, John Felix, Jilanne Marie Klaus, and Peter Haig. At the Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N Federal Highway, Boca Raton, through February 7. Performances Tuesday -- Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday at 7:00 p.m.; matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $17-$30. Call 462-5433 for information.


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