The 99th season of the Cleveland Play House starts off with a fabulous bang with Lillian Hellman’s classic The Little Foxes. Under the fierce direction of Artistic Director Laura Kepley, this play soars. Aaron Spelling must have seen this play before he produced the television series Dynasty, because there is so much backstabbing that I am surprised these actors don’t perform entirely against the walls. The only thing missing for me is a good old brawl between Alexis and Krystle, I mean, Regina and Birdie. Of course, you have to be a bit older to enjoy what I mean.
The Little Foxes is a 1939 play who’s title was inspired by Chapter 2, Verse 15 of the Song of Solomon in the King James version of the Bible, which reads, “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” And my, do these characters spoil and take advantage of tender human flaws. Set in a small town in Alabama in 1900, it focuses on the struggle for control of a family business.
The play’s focus is Southerner Regina Hubbard Giddens (Maggie Lacey*), who struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early 20th-century society, where fathers considered only sons as legal heirs. As a result of this practice, her avaricious brothers Benjamin (Cameron Folmar*) and Oscar (Jerry Richardson*) are independently wealthy, while she must rely upon her sickly, wheelchair-using husband Horace for financial support. Regina’s brother Oscar married Birdie (Heather Anderson Boll*), his much-maligned alcoholic wife, solely to acquire her family’s plantation and its cotton fields. Oscar now wants to join forces with his brother, Benjamin, to construct a cotton mill. They need an additional $75,000 and approach their sister, asking her to invest in the project. Oscar initially proposes marriage between his son Leo (Nick Barbato) and Regina’s daughter Alexandra (Megan King) – first cousins – as a means of getting Horace’s money, but Horace (Donald Carrier*) and Alexandra are repulsed by the suggestion. The resulting self-centered attempts by some of the family members create irreparable fissures, and result in some paying the ultimate price of life, and devastating loneliness.
Attending the production with my friend Molly McGinnis on a Saturday afternoon, I was struck by two things. First, how the matiness was so well attended, and then the beautiful set. Incredible craftsmanship, beautifully lit, which resulted in a welcoming environment that literally stirred excitement.
Lacey leads this dysfunctional parade with exceptional execution. Her beautiful looks mask a deep conniving heart, and her presentation is a fascinating study to try to find out if this character has the ability to ever be honest. Her stage presence is tremendous, as is her ability to make you want to slap the back of her head and yell “Knock it off!” The Brothers Grimm, or The Brothers Hubbard are quite a collection of misfits. Folmar leads off batting first in the smarmy line up. He deftly creates a devilish, selfish Benjamin, who is obviously empty of any compassion, except maybe when he looks in the mirror. As middle brother Oscar, Richardson presents the typical male who suffers from a Napoleon complex below the belt. His character follows his brother’s lead, and frustrated by his own lack of male dominance, finds it abusing his wife (a shockingly executed moment). Then there is Barbato, who creates a Leo that is as trifling gnat that never seems to settle down. Just like bowling, he would need the bumpers in the gutter lanes to get through life. He is enjoyable and annoying. Boll is mesmerizing as Birdie. We watch her character and struggle to find what is going on in that head, and as the layers are pealed back, we are astonished of how the will to survive is profound. Her coping mechanism is a beautifully played moment in the show, and heartbreaking. Carrier brings strength and energy as he joins the family. Watching him navigate through the machinations of those around him is a pleasure to watch. He adds so much to the balance of power in the play, and does so with great choices. King presents a strong presence on stage. As a younger character, she turns in a fierce performance and creates an arc for Alexandra that is very rewarding to watch. As Addie and Cal, Tolliver and Sullivan are not throw away characters. They each create a sense of weight in the play with sincere, powerful, and occasionally comical moments, which greatly enhances the handling of racism with dignity and resolve. Ellis as the Cotton Mill executive Marshall, cuts a fine figure and infuses the opening scenes with the right amount of “presenting the brass ring”, which everyone wants to grab. Hence, setting the wheels in motion in a fantastic way.
There was only one thing I noticed that I thought dangerously trod near farce, and that is where the brothers are denying an accusation from Regina. Some of the physical reactions of denial seemed too big for the atmosphere and tone that has been established to date. Other than that, I thought this production was a beautiful opening to the new season, and reinforces how wonderful it is to see Laura Kepley at the helm of this great institution.
The production team was excellent. Scenic and Costume Designer Lex Liang (Seriously amazing work. The costumes were perfection and the set wrapped the proceedings with elegance), Lighting Designer Michael Boll, Sound Designer Jane Shaw, Voice and Speech Director Thom Jones, Fight Choreographer Ron Wilson, Stage Manager Tom Humes*, Assistant Stage Manager Lizzie Robinson*.
This is a beautiful show, and a fascinating to watch the dysfunction. This play holds up really well, and that is a sad commentary on our human condition.
*Member of Actors’ Equity Association.
The Director is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.
The scenic, costume, lighting and sound designers in LORT Theatres are represented by United Scenic Artists, Local USA-829 of the IATSE.
Actors Nick Barbato and Megan King are members of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts Acting Program.
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$15-$59 Reserved Seating
Cleveland Play House
Allen Theater Complex
1407 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44115