Theater Review: THE LITTLE FOXES (Antaeus Theatre)

Post image for Theater Review: THE LITTLE FOXES (Antaeus Theatre)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on October 27, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


When the curtain comes down at the end of The Little Foxes you hear a remarkable sound: 80 people letting the air out of their lungs. We have all been holding our breath, tingling with anticipation and horror. This is an Antaeus Theatre Company audience. Logically, every single person watching knows exactly what comes next in Lillian Hellman’s play. It doesn’t matter. The nervous anticipation, dread, fear, and delight unfold with such freshness and such a deep, collective force of inventiveness and emotional truth that everything feels new. This is occurring for the first time, on this stage, in this moment, and anything can happen.

The Little Foxes is perfection. Every creative and technical choice made by this gifted creative and technical team pays off. The show washes over you effortlessly, swift in its pleasures, profound in its understanding of human greed and misery — but also of human love and loss. It is a monumental achievement.

Antaeus has been boldly redefining what it means to be a classic theater company. That boldness led to the success of Native Son last season. Some might see The Little Foxes as a return to a kind of classic orthodoxy. It is an old play staged in a rigidly naturalistic setting with no deviations of race or gender. Yet it is every bit as imaginative, expansive, and vital as Native Son.

At the center of it all is one of the most complex antiheroines of the 20th century, maybe any century, Regina Giddens. Tallulah Bankhead first played her on Broadway in 1939. Bette Davis immortalized her on film in 1941. Other notable actresses over the years include Anne Bancroft in 1967, Elizabeth Taylor in 1981, Stockard Channing in 1997, and Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney thrillingly alternating in the roles of Regina and her sister-in-law Birdie in 2017.

Ms. Hellman was a public intellectual and (blacklisted) left winger who biliously exhibited caustic, indeed, violent and negative attitudes about feminism and sometimes women in general. Yet The Little Foxes is steeped in feminist observations of the psychological carnage that inevitably results from discrimination. Regina is blocked by men throughout her life, from being cut out of her father’s will, to being cheated by her brothers, Ben and Oscar, and, finally, to being hamstrung by her husband, Horace. (That Horace has his reasons, and we largely agree with them, isn’t really the point. You still want her to win.)

I probably read the play for the first time when I was about 11-years-old. I saw a production of The Children’s Hour and it got me interested in Hellman. I instantly loved Regina and was desperately, passionately in her corner. Seeing the film sealed the deal. In all the years since, I’ve vaguely imagined my attraction to the character as some sort of proto gay-boy fandom thing. Madonna! Cher! Judy! Liza! Tallulah! Bette! The other Bette! Regina!

What the Antaeus production puts in perspective for me is the sociological significance of Regina’s righteous rage. This isn’t Joan Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry, going nuts at the prospect of being a nobody again on the wrong side of the tracks. The genius of the play is in its profound understanding of powerlessness, how it rots the soul until it destroys you or turns you into a monster. For Regina, these are the only two choices she sees. Some view her machinations as melodrama, soap opera even. I see them as Greek tragedy. Regina is a warrior, using the pain of her many wounds as fuel.

Yet director Cameron Watson and actress Deborah Puette take us into her world with a lightness of touch that is as surprising as it is effective. Mr. Watson and Ms. Puette understand something fundamental about Regina. She has gotten ahead by being charming, funny, beautiful, and magnetic. These are genuine qualities she possesses. They are also a complex charade. Sure, the mask has slipped over the years now and again with family. Everyone has a healthy fear of her. But still, the men can’t help themselves. Regina is a woman. Horace, Ben, and Oscar believe they can force her to comply with their wishes. They betray her.

But as said in one of the more famous lines in the play, Regina has always been lucky, and she is lucky again. Larceny and murderous (or perhaps man-slaughterous) opportunity arrive and she destroys the men in her life, literally in the case of her husband, figuratively in the case of her brothers. That she decimates her relationship with her daughter in the process is collateral damage; painful, yes, but Regina will get over it. She knows who she is. She accepts the consequences of her choices. No one will control her ever again.

Regina does not exist in a vacuum. This exploration of the devastating effects of female powerlessness is a triangle. Regina is the monster, Birdie the destroyed, and Regina’s daughter, Alexandra, is the open question: Will she take the road of her mother or her aunt? That Alexandra finds a third option is what gives us hope.

In a director’s note in the program, Watson talks about his long love for the play. That affection is obvious, but whatever his childhood enthusiasms, his work here is modern, relevant, and masterful. John Iacovelli’s set is extraordinary in its Victorian detail (and appropriate ugliness) but is also quite clever, with scrims on the sides giving us a foyer and dining room that allows for interesting split focus and a clever mise en scène. Terri A. Lewis’s costumes are as historically accurate as they are beautiful. I’ve never seen Regina and Birdie in Act I gowns of such color and elegance.

I am particularly impressed with the work of hair and wigs designer Jessica Mills. If there has been one area of inconsistency in Antaeus productions, it has been hair and wigs. This is the best, most cohesive work to date. Kudos as well to the rest of the design team: lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, sound designer Jeff Gardner, composer Ellen Mandel, props master David Stewart, and dialect coach Michael Thomas Walker. Everyone is at the top of his or her game.

If I didn’t make it clear in my earlier thoughts on the approach to Regina in this production, Deborah Puette is brilliant. Jocelyn Towne is her equal as Birdie. Ms. Towne is heartbreaking when Birdie admits the truth of her alcoholism and abusive marriage to Oscar. The scene could be dissected in an acting masterclass. Her technique gives it the pacing and build it needs to succeed. Her depth of feeling and artistry make it a moment of magic.

Alexandra has the largest arc of any of the characters. She starts the play as a girl and by the end is a woman, leaning back on the settee in a perfect callback to Regina’s same position, daring her mother to try to force her to do anything. Kristin Couture makes every bit of the journey believable and involving. Ms. Couture grows taller in front of you; her face loses its puppy dog fullness and becomes angular; her eyes change color, going cold as she sees her family clearly for the first time.

Mike McShane and Rob Nagle are wonderfully subtle playing Ben and Oscar. As with the acknowledgment of Regina’s charm, director and actors recognize that to have successfully done as well as they have, neither character could be disagreeable all the time. The vestige of the Oscar that made Birdie believe he loved her is there. Birdie may be foolish, but she had reason to believe he was not just using her position as fallen Southern aristocracy to burnish the Hubbard name.

As the doomed Horace Giddens, John DeMita is great. Herbert Marshall was a little sickly sweet in the role in the 1941 film, partly, I suspect, because of censorship. The character’s outside sexual dalliances and moral ambiguities were not explored. Mr. DeMita gives us that duality. He convincingly portrays Horace’s physical deterioration and collapse, as well as the stirrings of his feelings for the Regina he fell in love with — a woman who never quite existed.

Calvin Picou is fantastic as Leo, Oscar’s conniving but dimwitted son and Timothy Adam Venable is wonderful in the smaller role of William Marshall, the Chicago industrialist who is the lynchpin of the Hubbard business scheme. He has the presence to justify Regina’s belief that if it comes to choosing between her brothers or herself, Mr. Marshall will become a powerful ally to her.

Judy Louise Johnson and William L. Warren are both skilled actors who give the roles of servants Addie and Cal dignity and depth. The characters are not given last names, which speaks volumes. It hurts. I wish there were a way of staying historically faithful to representations of the American south without asking actors of color to essentially play Mammy and Uncle Tom.

That such roles can be more than stereotypes is inarguable. Hattie McDaniel is the emotional and moral center of Gone with the Wind. It is a complex, full character. But she is still a Mammy. Addie is vital to the heart and soul of The Little Foxes. But she is still a Mammy. And I imagine that playing such roles can be emotionally depleting. So much has changed. So little has changed.

Lillian Hellman was loud and bombastic about a lot of things. Her reputation has suffered for some opinions, such as her insistence on proclaiming Stalin as a progressive force for good far past the point of any reasonable person, declaring reports of Stalin’s show trials and purges as fake news (she might as well have been a Trump supporter). On the bright side, she is championed for refusing to name names during the McCarthy era, famously declaring, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

She was also publicly outspoken (if personally haphazard) about civil rights. She might have done extraordinary things if she had thought to imagine African-American characters in a different time and place, where they could have the power and agency she gives Regina. Some might say it was not her story to tell. Fair enough. But at the very least, I think she would have created characters that had more to do than react to white people. People of color are not the “other.” I am not the “other” either. None of us is. Tears well in my eyes as I write that. I don’t know why. Yes I do.

photos by Geoffrey Wade Photography

The Little Foxes
Antaeus Theatre Company
Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 East Broadway in Glendale
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2; Mon at 8 (dark Oct. 29)
ends on August 26, 2018
for tickets, call 818.506.1983 or visit Antaeus

Leave a Comment