Lyric West's resident home at Mass Bay College has been much improved by the addition of an ample thrust to the school's proscenium stage, with the promise of similar improvements to the lighting to come next year. The additions won't bring the facility up to the comfort level of the jewel box Ron Ritchell and Polly Hogan built for the Lyric in Boston before they and the board parted ways, but it should serve as a very good frame in which, as Lyric West, they can display living instances of the stagecraft and dramaturgy that are at the heart of the Anglo-American theatrical tradition. Certainly Jeff Gardiner's version of the 1900 living room for "The Little Foxes", a room which author Hellman describes as "good looking, the furniture expensive; but it reflects no particular taste" fits comfortably there and looks both handsome and suitably theatrical, a "typical" fourth wall set. Seth Bodie has designed costumes that characterize everyone, while giving the leading lady's that extra kick of fashion that signals the Star Part. Keeping such theatrical traditions alive and well and transmitting them to younger generations is what Ritchell and Hogan have made Lyric West's mission at Mass Bay.
Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" isn't on everybody's short list of twentieth century masterpieces, but it is a ripping good play with educational as well as entertainment value. Hellman's script illustrates an historic pattern of American success as well as a successful pattern of American play making. Her circa 1939 Marxist analysis of the forces of greed at work beneath the charming facade of the Old South at the turn of the twentieth century provides an alternative vision of the clash between vigorous brutes and enervated aesthetes that blossoms into poetry in the plays of Tennessee Williams. Director Ron Ritchell knows this play cold: he has seen it often, lived within it as an actor, produced it in the Lyric's previous theatre space. He has assembled a bright cast of professional Boston actors and encouraged them to underline the central conflicts to clarify exactly what's at stake. The juicy role of Regina Hubbard Gibbons, originated on Broadway by Talullah Bankhead, is in the capable hands of queenly Kippy Goldfarb. Her Regina is losing patience with the challenges to manipulation at hand, and is eager to move North to find new worlds to conquer . Regina's brother Ben Hubbard, as played by Ed Peed, is a monster of geniality, an unscrupulous villain who enjoys the game of one-up so much that he even takes pleasure in being (temporarily) outwitted by a clever opponent. Peed is so at home in this role that all thoughts of his previous-- widely different-- characterizations are banished, along with any notion that some other actor could fill Ben Hubbard's shoes in such a thoroughly satisfactory fashion..
Regina and her brothers, Ben and Oscar, are part of the ruthless new mercantile class poised to take over the power and privilege monopolized before the War Between the States by the big slave holding plantation owners. One method of take-over is through merger by marriage. Regina's beauty and charm landed her Horace Gibbons, an old family stalwart who controls the town bank. Oscar Hubbard (Robert Bonotto)-- who has a face like a fist and two expressions, tight and clenched-- managed to conceal his thuggishness long enough to court and capture Birdie (Lori Glaser), the refined and artistically inclined daughter of the declining First Family of the local aristocracy. Unfortunately, Birdie's social position was pretty much the only thing about her Oscar found attractive. Now that Birdie has been reduced to his chattel, Oscar showers abuse and contempt on her just to let off steam. He takes out his shotgun every day to slaughter birds and small animals for the same reason. Oscar has a lot of steam built up, because the Hubbard siblings are deeply into rivalry, and Oscar is continuously out maneuvered. Oscar isn't very nice to his son, Leo, either-- Leo, who in his dim and lazy way combines his mother Birdie's weakness for alcohol and a polished surface with the Hubbard family's instinct for rapacity. Oddly enough, in Bill Folman's characterization of Leo, the combination is rather appealing-- reminiscent of a young George Dubya.
At the play's opening Regina and her brothers are in Jeff Gardiner's Gidden parlour, entertaining William Marshall, (Fred Robbins) a Northern businessman with whom they hope to build an enormously profitable cotton mill, part of a vertical monopoly that will utilize the cheap labor of freed slaves to undercut Northern manufacturers. The plot is prospering-- except that to meet the requirement for venture capital, Regina must draw on the assets of her ill husband Horace Giddens, who has gone off to Baltimore to consult specialists for his weak heart, and settled into a hospital there out of the reach of Regina and her brothers. To lure Horace back to the family manse and within the web of her manipulations, Regina sends her loving seventeen year old daughter Alexandra (Andriana Gnap) off on a solo train trip half way across the country. Ben and Oscar's master plan includes marrying Alexandra and her fortune to her cousin Leo before she is enough older and wiser to know better-- though all the decent characters in the play oppose this.
The decent characters definitely include Addie and Cal, (Carol Parker and Jensen Auuste) freed slaves now working as household help. One can only be grateful to the actors willing to take on these parts, and hope that Mass Bay theatre audiences are sufficiently intelligent and historically informed to appreciate that Hellman is using stereotypes to demonstrate how such stereotypes are created and enforced, and whose interests they serve. Household servants are chosen carefully. Just as a house "boy" would be picked to carry out errands whose purpose is best left undetected because he seems "simple", combining personal honesty with a willed blindness to dishonesty in his "betters", a housekeeper would be appointed to her job because she combined a strong intelligence and upright character with a pessimistic resignation to the radical injustices of the racist system within which she lives and works. Hellman's play pulls no punches about this: Horace Gibbons says he would leave money to Addie in his will if he could, and the audience is to take his word for this -- the two of them agree that he can not. ADDIE: "Don't you do that, Mr.Horace. A nigger woman in a white man's will! I'd never get it nohow." It it a lesson that needs to be retaught to each new generation, who would prefer to think that only white bigots used the N-word, and have difficulty understanding how the Southern court system would be able to throw out such a bequest, even after the the Civil War continuing to rule according to the dictum that "The Negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.". If by a miracle the court refrained from bringing criminal charges against Addie for inspiring Horace's tabooed attempt to bestow money and the power that comes with it, the Klan would punish such an offense against the Supremacy code. Hellman's working out of her plot illustrates a hypothesis that was articulated by many writers during the Great Depression: The Hubbards and the Marshalls of this world have similar ambitions, and will reduce the rest of us to as near the status of a black person in the nineteenth century South as they possibly can. This rallying cry faded to a quaint memory after the nation drew together to fight the Second World War and enjoy the unprecedented wide spread prosperity that followed, but it is good to hear it loud and strong again on the Lyric West stage.