Arena’s ‘Little Foxes’ a fine, controversial season opener

Starring CSI’s Marg Helgenberger, the fine Arena Stage production of Lillian Hellman 1939 drama “Little Foxes” hits issues ranging from America's robber baron culture to the role of women.

Marg Helgenberger as Regina in Lillian Hellman’s "The Little Foxes" at Arena Stage (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

WASHINGTON, October 5, 2016 –Mead Center for American Theater—still popularly known as the Arena Stage—recently launched its new season with a lavish production of Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes,” featuring former CSI star Marg Helgenberger in the title role. Part of Arena’s ongoing Lillian Hellman Festival, “Little Foxes” is the first of two productions this season showcasing the work of the still-controversial American playwright whose “Watch on the Rhine” is scheduled for the company’s spring 2017 semester.

Edward Gero as Benjamin Hubbard, Gregory Linington as Oscar Hubbard, Isabel Keating as Birdie Hubbard and Marg Helgenberger as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Set in the Deep South around the turn of the last century and heavy with autobiographical elements, Hellman’s 1939 play—which actually opened that year right here in Washington’s National Theatre—focuses on the Hubbards, a ruthless, ambitious Deep South family. The Hubbards’ current generation has risen from tradesmen status to become the biggest players in town, ruthlessly supplanting the old Southern aristocracy and upsetting the social order in the process.

In their own way, the Hubbards—brothers Benjamin (Edward Gero) and Oscar (Gregory Linington)—are the Southern agrarian equivalent of that era’s New York-based robber barons that ruled the roost in the late 19th and early 20th century. We first meet them at the opening of Act I as they mount an ambitious attempt to expand their portfolio by courting a Chicago industrialist and persuading him to erect a mill on land the brothers own The selling point: dirt-cheap southern wage rates to fatten the bottom line.

But, as Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life is rarely pure and never simple.” The brothers underestimate the steely tenacity of their sister, Regina Givens (former CSI star Marg Helgenberger). Regina initially comes across like a classic southern belle. But she bides her time, turning the tables are turned her brothers’ elaborately planned, multi-level plot.

Regina can be viewed as the product of a bygone era today. But given Hellman’s point of view, Regina actually embodies the spirit of a radical modern feminist. Tired of her third-rate social status as a woman, and accustomed to living in the shadow of her two brothers and her ailing banker husband as well, she’s biding her time when we first meet her and gradually learn that her Southern Belle persona is only a mirage. She’s merely waiting for the precise moment to gain the upper hand to grab the reins of family wealth and power.

Lillian Hellman as she appeared in a 1939 photo. (Via Wikipedia entry on Lillian Hellman, image public domain)
Lillian Hellman as she appeared in a 1939 photo. (Via Wikipedia entry on Lillian Hellman, image public domain)

Lying just underneath the surface of this play, we quickly discover that a deep undercurrent of revolutionary hatred against capitalist excess also runs through this play. It’s already ensnared Ben and Oscar. But Regina will embrace it as well.

To make sure we get this point, “Little Foxes” director Kyle Donnelly links the relevance of this theme to our own times. Citing the still fashionable “Occupy Wall Street” meme in her “Director’s Notes,” she writes

“With the volatile political situation in this country right now and the continuing rise of the wealthy 1% to the detriment of the rest of the 99% of the population, ‘The Little Foxes’ demonstrates the 19th-century roots of this kind of behavior in America. The Hubbards will do anything to ensure they become members of the 1%, the rest be damned. It is a cautionary tale for us all.”

That’s likely what Hellman—a lifelong Communist despite her protestations to the contrary—intended for the audience to understand. Ironically, were she alive today, she might actually be surprised to witness our current presidential campaign in which not one but both major political parties are clearly subservient to a cadre of wealthy, globalist elites whose apparent aim is to establish Feudalism 2.0.

America’s ongoing political chaos is precisely what makes Arena’s revival of “Little Foxes” a provocative choice to open their new season. It’s contemporary social and economic criticism delightfully disguised as a costume drama.

Indeed, Arena has gone all out for quality in this lavish, period-authentic production, which includes wondrously-detailed period costumes created by Jess Goldstein and an ornately furnished parlor setting with all the trappings, designed with loving detail by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams.

The elaborate and no doubt costly production is made worthier still by Arena’s first rate cast.

The key adversaries in this play are Edward Gero’s coldly malevolent Benjamin Hubbard and Marg Helgenberger’s cat-like Regina, dainty when she chooses to be but ready to pounce when the time is right.

After such a long stint as a TV cop, it was a bit startling for this longtime CSI fan to see Helgenberger almost unrecognizably attired as a Southern belle. But she made the transformation work, gradually morphing into a believable, Hellman-style feminist determined to transcend the patriarchal system and fund her escape to the social and business nirvana of Chicago.

Perhaps even more challenging is the role of Benjamin Hubbard. In many respects, he’s a thoughtful villain, cranking out each opportunistic move with the kind of foresight we might expect from a 21st century project manager.

But here’s the problem: In Hellman’s hands, both Ben and brother Oscar are written rather two-dimensionally, so distasteful does the playwright find this pair. For this reason, it takes a special actor to endow Benjamin with enough sympathy and humanity to make us care.

Gero dispenses with Ben’s Snidely Whiplash trappings, supplanting them with a cold, dry wit and the kind of quietly insane business drive that makes this character’s unbridled greed seem natural and proper. It’s a first-class transformation. Even as he’s bested by Regina near the end of the play, Gero gives us the sense that Ben regards this setback as a lost inning rather than a lost game.

The play’s colorful supporting characters add humanity and complexity to the bare bones of Hellman’s plot and structure, each providing insight into the underlying causes of the Hubbard family’s dysfunction.

The role of second brother Oscar Hubbard is a rather ungrateful one, but it’s well played by Gregory Linington. Ben generally needs his brother to collude in his escalating schemes for world dominance, and Oscar seems more or less glad to go along. But he pays an increasingly heavy personal price.

Unlike his brother, Oscar is married—reluctantly—to the perpetually chattering Birdie Hubbard (Isabel Keating), perhaps the most annoying, yet sympathetic character in the play. It’s clear that the marriage of Birdie and Oscar was part of yet another brotherly plot by the two brothers to separate her from her old-aristocrat money, including a mansion and a vast estate.

But by marrying Oscar, Birdie loses control of it all to her husband according to the laws and social customs of the time. Once this is accomplished, she becomes less and less a wife and more of a useless appendage to be tolerated and endured rather than loved.

Keating endows Birdie with an enormous if paradoxical inner strength. For all her seeming idiocy and fluff, she’s also the most human, the most sympathetic character in the play. She becomes the shining example of victimhood and the kind of human wreckage the brothers Hubbard thoughtlessly leave in their wake.

Cast members appearing after the opening night performance of "LIttle Foxes" at Arena Stage. (Photo: Terry Ponick)
Cast members appearing after the opening night performance of “LIttle Foxes” at Arena Stage. (Photo: Terry Ponick)

As young Leo Hubbard, Oscar’s good-for-nothing son, Stanton Nash fleshes out the somewhat stereotypical role of a lazy, entitled, next-generation business hack who enjoys his inflated title and outsized if unearned salary while do as little as possible to earn it.

In the small but important role of Regina’s daughter Alexandra, Megan Graves turns in a believable performance as a confused young woman whose life choices may also involve lighting out for the territories, an ironic parallel to her own mother’s ambitious aims.

But perhaps best of all was Jack Willis in the role of Horace Giddens, Regina’s long absent, estranged and slowly dying husband Horace.

Not privy to the Hubbard brothers’ plot, Horace is powerful in his own right, serving as president of the local bank and the reluctant employer of Leo. But his belated return to the South—and to the Hubbard family he clearly despises—including his wife—engages the family into a final showdown, as the brothers plot to relieve him (and Regina) of much of his wealth before he breathes his last.

Willis gives enormous power to this role of a once influential and now nearly powerless man, imbuing Horace’s own flawed character with strength and dignity, driven by a moral sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Rounding out the cast are Kim James Bey and David Emerson Toney, as the Giddens family’s black servants Addie and Cal. Given the context of our own times, these are rather ungrateful roles, but Hellman has endeavored to imbue them with a certain dignity and moral superiority, best exemplified by Addie’s loyalty and strength, superior in every way to the moral quality of the family she serves.

The opening night performance of “Little Foxes” did feature the usual complement of minor errors including a somewhat stiff opening scene and a few muffed lines and occasionally neglected or inconsistent Southern accents along the way. But by now, these kinks should be worked out, meaning you should plan to see this exemplary production before it closes at the end of October.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)

The Arena Stage production of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes continues through October 30, 2016 at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, DC. (Green Line, Waterfront.)

Tickets and information: Call the box office at 202 488-3300, or visit the Arena Stage box office online.

An Arena Stage clip featuring the cast members of “Little Foxes” appears below:

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