Hello, Foxes!

21. January, 2013 Theater No comments

Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play The Little Foxes may be set in 1900, but the subject matter has something to say to the present day, being essentially about the rich screwing over common folk (and each other) to become even more rich. A new-money family on the rise in the South, the Hubbards are so hungry to make a profit that they’re willing to stoop to pretty much anything to make it happen. Having married into a cotton plantation, they’re wooing a northern cotton mill to come to town and stand to make millions on the deal, but they need the investment of sister Regina’s estranged, terminally ill husband to make it happen.

Sally Dana in an advance shot for The Little Foxes. (That’s not the actual set, obviously.) Photo by Michael David Rose Photography.

The Little Foxes is the first production by Tides Theatre in its plum new home in the heart of San Francisco’s theater district—the space recently vacated by SF Playhouse when it took over the former Post Street Theatre. It’s also the company’s third show ever, after productions of Waiting for Godot and the short comedy 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche. So far it’s been hard to get a sense of what this new company’s focus is, and opening its second season with this Hellman drama only deepens the mystery. It’s not that a varied bill of fare is a bad thing by any means, but it make it hard to guess what Tides’ mission is. One common thread is that all the plays so far have been helmed by producing artistic director Jennifer Welch. (Another is that the older two of them have been produced by American Conservatory Theater in the last decade.)

Welch has decided to set this play in the present day, with the cotton mill owner based in Shanghai rather than Chicago, but it’s an odd fit, especially at the beginning. There’s a lot of talk about the Southern aristocracy’s decline after the Civil War, and it’s clear that they’re talking about a fairly recent thing. More glaringly, the way people talk in general feels antiquated and stilted in a contemporary setting—the cognitive dissonance is more pronounced than with Shakespeare, because at least we’re used to that.

In fact, Welch’s staging in general is fairly awkward at the beginning, at least as seen on opening night, and it takes a while for the pacing to gel. The exposition-heavy first scene, in which the entire family is wining and dining the mill owner, Mr. Marshall (a pleasantly smiling Leon Goertzen), is on the flat side. There’s some rushing of lines all around that sometimes makes them sound indistinct and recitative, and gets the actors tangled up from time to time. But all the scheming and skullduggery and spitefulness soon ropes you in, and the cast’s high-energy performances keep the drama, well, dramatic.

Sally Dana has a sly charisma and monstrous ambition as Regina, whose avarice is all the more all-encompassing because she’s been passed over for inheritance in favor of her brothers before. John Lowell’s Ben fancies himself a smooth-talking businessman, but it’s always with the oily, awkward sense of a used car salesman trying too hard, and his attempts to be menacing couldn’t be less convincing.  His brother, on the other hand, oozes it from every pore. Hard-drinking and disheveled, with a wispy beard, Brian Trybom is bursting with ill-controlled, near animalistic rage as Oscar, the dull-witted, spiteful and barely housebroken brother, whose most agreeable expression is a peevish glower. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree in Dashiell Hillman as son Leo, a sullen, shiftless layabout who’s always buried in his smartphone.

With the omnipresent toothy smile of someone desperate to please, Amber Collins Crane is particularly effective as Oscar’s browbeaten wife, Birdie, born of the Southern aristocracy that the Hubbard family wormed its way into. Her nervous desperation just to get through the day without something terrible happening is palpable. Riley Krull is mild and unassuming as Regina’s daughter Alexandra, one of the few good eggs in the family, and Aeron Macintyre has a refreshing forthrightness and strong conscience as the frail husband Horace. (Horace apparently has a history of screwing around, but that’s one moral failing that no one in the family seems to take particularly seriously.) Sheila Collins is a warm, easygoing presence as the maid Addie, dressed here as some kind of executive assistant.

Alicia Griffiths’s curious set consists of an ascending series of platforms with an irregular pattern of white lines—strings, really—on a brown background. It doesn’t look much like any kind of house (the setting of the play), nor is it particularly attractive, but it’s certainly modern.

It’s a fun play, and Hellman has a flair for a cutting turn of phrase. “Because the Southern aristocrat could adapt himself to nothing. Too high-toned to try,” Ben says during his opening exposition, and Addie gets probably the most memorable (if heavy-handed) metaphor in the play: “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it, like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.”

Welch’s take on the play isn’t the most subtle, with much of its emotional violence turned physical, but it’s not a subtle play to begin with, and the high energy of some of its more melodramatic moments prove a strong counterbalance to the occasional conversations that drag. It’s not the most even production, but in the end it all evens out.

The Little Foxes
Through February 23
Tides Theatre
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #2 of 2013, attended January 18.

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