The Little Foxes
by Lillian Hellman
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
Nov 1-26, 2006
Lillian Hellman’s classic 1939 play, The Little Foxes, offers an actress of a certain age one of the tastiest roles in theatre. Regina Hubbard, played on stage and in the movies by such powerhouses as Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, and even Elizabeth Taylor (circa 1981), is a classic bad girl. Neither bitch nor traitor, Regina is a different sort of villainess--a wily Southern woman whose lust is for cash, pure and simple.
Of course, Regina is just part of the problem. Along with her two brothers, this is a triumvirate of greed, with everyone else in the family either caught up in the common pastime, oblivious, or drunk. These people are not Southern in a stereotypical, Gone-with-the-Wind way, (except for their tendency to say, “nigger”)--they’re more modern than that, prototypes of some post-post Civil War race of neo-Republicans. Sound familiar? The play may have been written over 60 years ago, but George W. Bush would feel perfectly comfortable sipping port on this sofa, at home with the Hubbard “family values”.
This is the point San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre is most certainly intending to send home in the days before the 2006 election. Regime change! Regime change! You can hear the locals in the lounge at intermission smacking their lips over the distasteful creatures Hellman, a radical heroine of the 20th Century, created, supposedly drawing example from members of her own family. What horrible, despicable people! On the other hand, the ACT audience, San Francisco at large, and every other urban liberal bastion in America is riddled if not dominated by the rich. Who do you think supports the arts? In 2006, everyone is still in search of bling bling. All Americans are Little Foxes. We just have to admit it.
Three acts of scheming and avarice requires an audience that is willing to ride into darkness, a playwright who can fashion a plot with surprises, and actors who can scratch and bite, verbally. Lead by Jacqueline Antaramian and Jack Willis (as Regina and her brother, Ben Hubbard) the ACT actors do pull-off the strange recipe Hellman envisioned—-Southern syrup topped-off with venom.
Compared to a Bankhead or Davis, Antaramian’s portrayal is lighter, but Talullahs and Bettes come around once a century. Antaramian is confident, but her voice and physicality doesn’t command authority over the family and the audience. She’s got a touch of self-pity to her, and that’s a sign of weakness. Willis, on the other hand, is a portly man with a whining-edge to his bellowing speaking voice, which seems to cut right through every scene, shaping the plot, forcing his character’s lack of appeal right into your face.
Near the end, a fateful trip up a grand staircase by Regina’s spurned husband (played by Nicholas Hormann) had nearly a silent-film broadness to it. This was among the only moments in the entire play where the direction took a risk. Otherwise, director Laird Williamson interpreted things in a text-bound, static manner. Mostly it was: sit and talk, stand and talk, walk and talk. Someone should choreograph a ballet version of Little Foxes so these actors (and the director) could see how others decided to embody venality. It would do this production some good.
The Little Foxes by Lillian Helman. Directed by Laird Williamson. American Conservatory theater, San Francisco. November 1-26, 2006.
Michael Wade Simpson