The perceptive play-goer sitting next to me at opening night of "The Little Foxes" at The Shakespeare Theatre in Madison, turned to me at the first intermission (of two since the show was written in the ‘30s and those productions normally have three acts) and said distinctly "another dysfunctional family."
Dead right, of course. Lillian Hellman's pot-boiler has long been a vehicle for bravura performances by important actresses — Tallulah Bankhead on stage; Bette David in the movies. And since then strong outings by such stars as Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Taylor and many others. But this particular production at the lovely 308-seat spaces on the campus of Drew University is something more. And it is that "something more" that director Matthew Arbour and a beautifully balanced company (of ten) have brought to the fore.
So often with this show, actresses such as Ms. Bankhead, Ms. Davis or Ms. Taylor use the script to "chew the scenery" and in the process, overpower both the rest of the cast and the script. The opportunity for such "chewing" is certainly there — both in the role of Regina and Aunt Birdie. Playwright Hellman wrote strong female roles — witness "The Children's Hour" and "Watch on the Rhine."
In this production Kathryn Meisle plays Regina and Deanne Lorette handles the role of Birdie. And their restraint gives the entire evening a more balanced appeal. The story relies on the tradition, prevalent in the south at the turn of the twentieth century (the early 1900s) of primogeniture and the process of giving to the males in families the major authority for finances. In this family set-up, Regina as the sister is completely defenseless while her brothers have full control of all business. Aunt Birdie, for example, brought her money to her marriage, but her husband now controls it all. Director Arbour has staged the piece with such care that the tale, often misrepresented in some productions, is told here with great clarity.
Philip Goodwin is a fine Benjamin, the older brother. Brian Dykstra plays the younger brother Oscar with veiled menace and Fisher Neal plays his son with obvious relish. One still remembers Dan Duryea in the film. Lindsey Wochley makes a most appealing Alexandra, Regina's daughter. Venida and Ron Brice distinguish themselves as the family servants who know all the secrets and are far-too-smart ever to reveal them.
"The Little Foxes" runs through June 28th on the Main Stage of The Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison. 36 Madison Ave. in Madison. The box office number is (973) 408-5600.