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The Little Foxes
by Lillian Hellman
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 30, 2018

Laurie McConnell, Bridgette Bassa, Kari Ely, Richard Lewis, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s new season’s theme is “Blood Is Thicker Than Water”. It leads off with a 20th Century classic, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. It’s a play I’d heard a lot about but had never actually seen before. Now, I’m glad this is the first production I’ve seen. It’s an intense, emotionally fraught play characterized by some truly remarkable performances by a cast of superb local actors.

The story is apparently semi-autobiographical, inspired by members of playwright Hellman’s own family. Set in the American South at the turn of the 20th Century, it offers a glimpse into wealthy Southern society at the time, both as a portrayal and as a scathing critique, as the inner workings and relationships among members of a wealthy extended family serve as a reflection of societal expectations, traditions, and injustices of the era. The central figure is Regina Giddens (Kari Ely), an ambitious woman whose fortunes have been determined largely by her financial dependence on her scheming brothers Ben (Chuck Brinkley) and Oscar (Bob Gerchen), as well as her mild-mannered, ailing husband Horace (William Roth). When the brothers arrange a deal with wealthy Chicago businessman William Marshall (Richard Lewis) to build a cotton mill, they pressure Regina into investing along with them but she needs to get Horace to agree, which means she has to send her young daughter Alexandra (Bridgette Bassa) on a train to Maryland, where he has been receiving treatment for his heart condition, to bring him home. Meanwhile, Oscar schemes to arrange a marriage between his immature son Leo (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Alexandra as a way of securing Horace’s money. Alexandra, for her part, doesn’t like Leo very much and seems to be closer to her aunt, Oscar’s gentle but mistreated wife Birdie (Laurie McConnell), who was born into a wealthy landowning family and who the abusive Oscar married for this reason. Trapped in a loveless, frequently violent marriage and a highly restrictive society, Birdie clings to music and drink as forms of comfort. The haunted Birdie serves as a contrast to the steely, strong-willed and ruthless Regina, who will use any means necessary to get what she wants.

Hellman pulls no punches in this devastating play, depicting the schemes, machinations, greed, brutality, and racism of Regina and her brothers–and the society in which they grew up and aim to thrive–with sharp characterization and caustic dialogue. The liberal use of racial slurs by the characters is difficult to listen to at times, but it’s reflective of the times and the characters and society. It’s difficult to watch the casual racism of most of the characters clearly demonstrated in their attitudes toward the family’s household servants, Addie (Wendy Greenwood) and Cal (Dennis Jethro II), although this too is realistic. The household dynamics are on clear display, and the nature of the various relationships is made clear in the script as well as in John Contini’s thoughtful direction. It’s clear, for instance, before anything needs to be said, the brutality of the relationship between Oscar and Birdie, as well as Horace’s contempt for Regina, Alexandra’s closeness to Birdie and Addie (Wendy Greenwood), and Addie’s thoughts about the various family members, positive and negative. Regina’s scheming is also evident, both in the script and in Ely’s crafty, measured performance. The story is intricately plotted, structured in three acts and with the tension building and with a series of devastating moments.

This is both a well-plotted story and a rich character study, and all the actors perform their roles with impressive ability. Ely, as mentioned, is a commanding presence as the scheming Regina, with Gerchen as the cold, brutal Oscar and Brinkley as the equally ambitious but more diplomatic Ben also convincing. There are also strong performances from Roth as the kind but sickly Horace, and Bassa as Alexandra, who shows a great deal of character growth as the story develops and she learns what her family is really like. Lawson-Maeske is appropriately eager and clueless as Leo, and Greenwood is especially strong as Addie, as well, particularly in her scenes with Bassa and Roth. The biggest standout, though, is McConnell, in a truly stunning, multi-layered and heartbreaking performance as Birdie. A gentle woman whose fond memories of her family are clear, as well as her increasingly obvious disillusionment and loss of hope, Birdie’s story is made especially convincing by McConnell, who is always excellent and is at her best here.

In addition to the excellent cast, this show displays impressive production values as well. STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre is a challenging space in terms of how small it is, but this company has continually made the most of that space, and they seem to have outdone themselves this time. Patrick Huber’s mult-level set is stunning, representing a well-appointed 1900-era Southern mansion with clarity. The costumes by Megan Harshaw also suit the characters well. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Patrick Huber, sound designer Contini, and props designer Jess Stamper. All of these elements work together well to maintain the atmosphere, tension, and drama of the play.

The Little Foxes at St. Louis Actors’ Studio is not to be missed. Whether you are familiar with the works of Lillian Hellman or not, this is a must-see show. It’s a reflection of the excellence of this company as well as the outstanding cast of local actors who have brought these characters to life. Although many of the characters in this play are unlikable to say the least, they are vividly portrayed here. The running time is fairly long–it’s three acts with two intermissions, and it’s riveting from start to finish. There’s one more weekend to see it. Don’t miss it.

Laurie McConnell, Bridgette Bassa, Kari Ely, Wendy Greenwood, Richard Lewis, Chuck Brinkley, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Bob Gerchen
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Little Foxes at the Gaslight Theatre until October 14, 2018

 

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