Regina Giddens, the Southern belle at the center of Lillian Hellman’s landmark play “The Little Foxes,” ranks as one of the great grande dames in American theater. The role was created by Tallulah Bankhead in 1939, played by Bette Davis in the 1941 film, and revived by Elizabeth Taylor on Broadway in the ’80s.
But the Regina in Hudson Theatre Works’ current revival of “The Little Foxes,” as played by statuesque redhead Quinn Cassavale, seems less a fire-breathing dragon than a flesh-and-blood survivor. She may ultimately get her way — that’s how the play is written — but she often comes across as as much a victim as a predator. This is a less imperious, less scene-stealing Regina than Davis’ interpretation (and one can only imagine how gloriously evil Bankhead must have been in the role). By underplaying Regina a bit, Cassavale creates opportunities for the actors around her to impress, and impress they do.
Frank Licato, Hudson Theatre Works’ artistic director, directed the 2 ½-hour production, assembling a top-flight cast of 10 for this period piece about a greedy, conniving family who know all too well that they were not born into “Southern aristocracy,” but desperately yearn to join it.
The story concerns three siblings: Patriarchal Ben Hubbard (a mustached and dandified older Southern gentlemen as played by Nick Hardin), hustling and bullied brother Oscar (Dale Monroe) and their sister Regina. Also in the mix are Oscar’s flighty and vulnerable wife Birdie (the brilliant HTW ensemble player B.C. Miller) and their irresponsible, immoral son Leo (Mikey Miller) as well as Regina’s budding teenage daughter Alexandra (Sara Giacomini).
LaShan Branham and Todd Toure play the family’s black servants, Addie and Cal, who serve as a sort of Greek chorus, often rising above their station to provide moral commentary on the drama.
The Hubbards own cotton fields — on land that they wrested away from Birdie’s once-artistocratic family — and have worked up a deal with a Chicago businessman named Marshall (benignly and affably played by Chase Newhart) to build a factory. “Why take the cotton to the factory when you can put the factory next to the cotton?” asks Ben repeatedly.
There is one hitch: While Ben and Oscar are ready with their part of the investment, they need Regina’s husband Horace (Kevin Cristaldi) to pony up his third of the money for the plan to go through.
But Horace has been in a Baltimore hospital for five months, recuperating from heart trouble, and hasn’t answered any of the entreaties for his part of the investment. Finally, Alexandra is dispatched to bring her father back to the family home; when he arrives, we see an invalid with not long to live, who has had months to think about his life and the future.
Horace wants no part of the deal, and we learn that Mr. Marshall actually wants to build a factory on Hubbard land to exploit black and poor white workers for a fraction of the wages he pays in Massachusetts. Horace wants no part of it. “We have enough money,” he tells Regina. “I’m not going to do anything that makes the world even worse than it already is.”
But Horace has railroad bonds in a safety deposit box ripe for the plucking, and so chicanery, theft and deception come into play.
“The Little Foxes” teems with stereotypes — greedy white Southerners scheming to enrich themselves on the backs of the working poor and unafraid to do it as immorally as possible; an ambitious and ruthless harridan straight out of Shakespeare; the virginal, innocent Alexandra; the wise, nurturing black servants; the feckless, bullied Leo. But the play becomes more than the sum of its parts here, thanks to actors who bring each role to life and transform a tawdry melodrama with an anti-climactic ending into a gripping theatrical experience.
Hardin, so good in HTW’s recent production of “Hughie,” does everything but twirl his mustache like Snidely Whiplash in his portrayal of the greedy, bullying Ben, but his performance never falters. Giacomini plays the 17-year old Alexandra convincingly, giving the innocent girl a moral backbone that proves a match for her insanely ambitious and unloving mother. Cristaldi nails the chronically ill Horace, lurching on his cane like a man truly on death’s door.
And kudos to Mikey Miller, who imbues the usually vanilla role of Leo with a manic energy that suggests a preppy chorus boy on amphetamines. His Cheshire Cat smile will haunt me for weeks.
“The Little Foxes” represents one of Hudson Theatre Works’ most ambitious productions in recent memory and also one of its most successful. It is a reminder of what a blessing affordable local theater can be.
“The Little Foxes” runs through April 2 at Hudson Theatre Works in Weehawken. Visit hudsontheatreworks.org.
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