By Lillian Hellman
Directed by Ron Ritchell
Lyric West Theatre
Mass Bay College, Wellesley, through October 27, 2001

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Ron Ritchell at Lyric West is building on the success of his last season's "The Little Foxes" with a production of Hellman's 1947 prequel to the Hubbard saga she wrote in 1939, "Another Part of the Forest", using some of the same actors he used in his "Forest", but with some part-shifting to accommodate the twenty year flash-forward. This was a very good idea: I enjoyed "Foxes", but "Another" is even more enjoyable, mainly because of the double perspective made possible by having the two-decades-later consequences of what is happening in 1880 fresh in one's memory.

In 1880, the Hubbard family patriarch is Marcus Hubbard, played by Ed Peed. Marcus is a self made man, born dirt poor in the Piney Woods, who toiled away at menial labor while he taught himself Greek philosophy and the basics of American sharp dealing. Marcus' coldly rational perception that the Confederacy was bound to lose the Civil War, and that there was money to be made from the better-off people around him who irrationally believe otherwise, was the foundation of the Hubbard fortune. After the war, those who hadn't profited from it were easy pickings for a man with ready cash and Northern connections.

Marcus' oldest son, Ben -- the role Peed played as a suave master of gamesmanship in "Foxes"-- is played here by Robert Bonotto, who was such a memorably nasty loser as younger son Oscar In "Foxes". Peed's Marcus is a much more rough-hewn characterization than was his genial Ben, while Bonotto's Ben begins as a young and frustrated version of Marcus, and in the course of the play, slowly and step by step learning patience, insight and objectivity, begins to resemble the masterful Ben we met last season. These two performances are fascinating, both in themselves and in comparison. The third figure of intense interest is Marcus' wife Lavinia, a character barely mentioned twenty years later. As Lavinia's husband, Marcus is utterly without scruples. Apparently Lavinia was slightly higher than Marcus in Piney Woods' social scale once, and even taught Marcus some elementary music and manners. But Lavinia is useless to Marcus' business dealings, and he treats her in a way designed to undercut not just her self confidence but her very sense of reality. Marcus does this so deliberately that the audience is encouraged to suspect that Marcus has a material motive of some kind for his cruelty to a good-hearted harmless woman like Lavinia -- a motive to be revealed in Act Three.

Muddled, maddened, and ineffectual, Bible-quoting Lavinia is no help to her children. Eda Rabinovitz does a marvelous job with this role, fluttering off into interior green pastures and agonizing over her inability to get away to perform the services she has promised to do for the "poor coloreds" to expiate her sins, and then suddenly, briefly, making a connection or taking a stand. Lavinia has an effective connection with Coralee (Saba Mwime) the family servant. But Lavinia's sons don't even try to connect. Ben and Oscar (Shelley Bolman) are indentured to long hours and short rations in the family businesses. They do Marcus' dirty work without reaping any of the rewards, except in their fantasy of Some Day When the Old Man Dies. Regina (Andriana Gnap, who played Regina's better natured daughter Alexandra in "The Little Foxes") on the other hand is spoiled rotten by her doting Dad, who encourages her to flatter and pet him shamelessly to get what she wants. Unfortunately what Regina wants is the fading and penniless Confederate hero on the plantation next door, John Bagtry (Joseph Zamperelli) Regina seems to have some notion of acceptance by the Bagtry aristocracy, now so poor that they are literally starving, a romantic moonbeam of a notion which lends a luster to the aging soldier's courtly charm. But while Bagtry succumbs to some of Regina's wiles, marriage is out of the question. If Bagtry were marriageable, he'd look elsewhere. Bagtry's sister Birdy is looking for a loan on the family land, and Ben sees several opportunities in that that Marcus overlooks. One is the opportunity to marry Oscar to Birdy (Lori Glauser, last season's middle aged Birdy, is the 25 year old Birdy her) even though Oscar is presently "sincerely in love with Miss Laurette Sincee," a whore -- played with panache by Marie Larkin. Gary Kirby doubles most delightfully as a proud town father and a sycophantic musician, both of whom want some of the Hubbard money.

Besides the rare pleasure of seeing a whole stage full of actors at work in a straight play, "Another Part of the Forest " offers another sort of abundance, beyond the elegant greed of "The Little Foxes". The Horrible Hubbards are a monster-making family, unrestrained by social pressure or religious scruple or even garden variety empathy. What empathic feelings they have, they use to feel out others' weaknesses and exploit them. The bad are energized and enlarged, hothouse flowers of evil. The good are weak as far as worldly influence goes, but they too are hothouse blooms, all their energy flowering into eccentricity. This excess makes for melodrama, expressionism, heightened realism -- and comedy. They are all just too much!

The set and costumes for the show seem to be designed with this expressionistic excess in mind, which is an admirable notion -- but I didn't like the cartoonish effect. The women's dresses are more symbolic collages of corsets and raw drapery than wearable garments circa 1880, and the facade of the Hubbard mansion, in exaggerated perspective with ugly blocks of gray and maroon is neither plausible nor functional. Hellman doesn't paint her whole world as monstrously out of scale. There are a few ordinary people like the two servants Jake and Coralee, and Jugger, the hired musician: enough, and good enough, to warrant a more natural, less uncomfortable perspective.