There were no air conditioners or airplanes, no television or traffic lights in 1900.  Ballpoint pens and shopping carts had yet to be invented, nor had calculators or computers.  Still, despite how different our 21st Century world may seem from the one inhabited by the Hubbards of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, at least one thing remains very much the same—greed.  When Ben Hubbard utters the prophetic lines, “There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren’t Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country some day,” he could easily be speaking of the CEOs whose greed is in large part responsible for today’s economic woes.  Despite being seventy years old and taking place more than a century ago, The Little Foxes is as relevant as ever, as well as being crackling good theater, especially in a production as exciting, powerful, and contemporary as the one now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Director Dámaso Rodgriguez has approached The Little Foxes as if it were the latest edgy production of his Furious Theatre Company, and it shows in the electric work of his stellar cast, particularly the commanding lead performance of Kelly McGillis in the role made famous by Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway and by Bette Davis on the silver screen.

McGillis is Regina Hubbard Giddens, the rapacious vixen at the center of the Southern Hubbards’ quest for wealth and power. Trapped in a boring marriage to Horace (Geoff Pierson), a banker who ironically lacks her thirst for riches, Regina has decided to take advantage of her husband’s hospitalization up north to conspire with her brothers Ben (Steve Vinovich) and Oscar (Marc Singer) to make a deal with visiting northerner William Marshall (Tom Schmid). If they can seal the deal, a new cotton mill will be built that will make them millionaires. 

Ben and Oscar’s desire to keep the mill in the family makes Regina’s cooperation essential, so much so that she is able to wangle from them a promise of 51% control. There is one hitch; the Giddens money is all in Horace’s name. Still, to a woman like Regina, this is simply one more challenge to be met.

There’s no honor among thieves, however, and Oscar and his son Leo (Shawn Lee) come up with a plan to get Horace’s money (and a two-thirds’ share in the mill) without his, Regina’s, or Ben’s knowledge. The squirrelly Leo will “borrow” $88,000 worth of Union Pacific bonds from Horace’s safe deposit box, and when they’ve recouped the investment, replace the bonds.  Child’s play, and worry free, insists Leo, as Horace only checks the box every six months or so, ample time for the bonds to be put to good use and returned.

Unaware of Oscar’s plan, Regina welcomes Horace home, his heart even weaker than when he left, but his desire not to let the Hubbards “wreck the town and live on it” stronger than ever. Discovering the bonds’ disappearance and guessing the who, how, and why, Horace comes up with a plan to get back at his brother and at his greedy, calculating wife.  Unfortunately for Horace, trying to cheat a cheater does have its down side, especially when one’s life depends on having one’s heart medicine within easy grasp.

Making an indelible impression as Regina, McGillis proves that she is much more than the film star we remember as Tom Cruise’s leading lady in Top Gun and Harrison Ford’s in Witness.  The statuesque Julliard School Of Drama grad proves herself a charismatic, consummate stage actress, her Regina complex and even conflicted, yet resolute once her course of action has been decided upon.  Rodriguez stages The Little Fox’s most memorable scene (you know the one if you’ve seen either the play or movie) with Regina facing away, overcome with emotion, seemingly unable to face the unfolding consequences of her decision.  Only Rodriguez and McGillis know what Regina is thinking at that moment, but it makes for great post-performance discussion.

Vinovich and Singer provide excellent support as Regina’s brothers, accomplices, and rivals. It’s fascinating to watch the family dynamics as alpha-bro Ben keeps weaker Oscar firmly under his thumb, only to have the younger Hubbard take out his frustrations on his long suffering wife Birdie, a superb, heartbreaking Julia Duffy revealing herself to be much more than the TV sitcom star we remember from Newhart and Designing Women.

Pierson is so convincing as the infirm Horace that it comes as somewhat of a surprise to find him hale and hearty at curtain call.  Furious Theatre company member Lee once again proves himself one of our finest and most versatile young actors, entirely disappearing into Leo’s toady skin. Rachel Sondag, though not exactly seventeen, is very good as Regina and Horace’s daughter Alexandra, the moral compass of the play, if there is one. Schmid makes such a strong impression in his lone Act One appearance that his Yankee presence is remembered throughout the play’s three acts (performed here with a single intermission).

Finally, Dreamgirls’ original Broadway stars Yvette Cason and Cleavant Derricks do beautiful work as the Hubbard’s black servants Addie and Cal, bringing intelligence and dignity to roles that were written back in the days of Stepin Fetchit and Amos and Andy. The “N-word” is used frequently, both by masters and servants, and takes a bit of getting used to, but is appropriate in its historical context.  Given that the action takes place only thirty years or so after the end of the Civil War, I did wonder at the likelihood of Addie’s sitting  comfortably beside assorted seated Hubbards, but perhaps that was in Hellman’s original script.

Design elements are, in a word, sensational, beginning with Gary Wissman’s abstract Hubbard living room set, the Playhouse’s upstage wall doctored to look like crumbling bricks, a metaphor for the effect the war had on the Hubbards’ pre-Civil War splendor.  Mary Vogt’s costumes are gorgeous period pieces, particularly McGillis’s strikingly elegant gowns in their rich greens and blues. Dan Jenkins’ exquisite lighting changes to fit the time of day, and when the blinds are opened one by one, morning sunlight entering, the effect is particularly lovely. Michael Hooker’s sound design couldn’t be better, subtly underscoring scenes with crickets and birdsongs, hooves on cobbled streets seemingly coming from an offstage horse or two.  Dialect coach Joel Goldes is responsible for the cast’s mostly very good good Southern accents. (Interestingly, McGillis appeared to have less of an accent in the first act, perhaps Regina’s deliberate effort to sound less Deep South in the presence of the family’s Northern visitor.)

This is the third time I’ve seen The Little Foxes, beginning years ago with Elizabeth Taylor at the Ahmanson and more recently in an excellent 99-seat production at Theatre 40.  Though Foxes gained in intimacy on the smaller T40 stage, seeing it in full Broadway scale at the Playhouse makes this production all the more exciting. With the directorial reins in Rodriguez’s gifted hands and a cast as superb as this one, The Pasadena Playhouse production of the Lillian Hellman classic is memorable indeed.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
June 2, 2009
                                                             Photos: Craig Schwartz

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