Chicago Theatre Review
Those Who Eat the Earth
The Little Foxes – Goodman Theatre
The Hubbards are a coldblooded, money-hungry, aristocratic clan who live near each other in a small Southern town at the turn of the century. In order to achieve what they want, they’re not above lying, cheating, stealing and even watching their family die. Regina Hubbard Giddens and her brothers Benjamin and Oscar Hubbard say goodbye to William Marshall, their enterprising dinner guest from Chicago, as a money-making plan is set into motion. This greedy, scheming family live like a pack of drooling jackals, continually sniffing around for opportunities to get fatter and with little care for anyone else.
Lillian Hellman’s somewhat autobiographical drama, which takes its title from a line in the Song of Solomon, has been enjoyed for decades. It played more than 400 performances when it first opened on Broadway in 1939 and starred the celebrated actress, Tallulah Bankhead. Mike Nichols later revived the play at Lincoln Center in 1967. Another noteworthy revival in 1981 starred Elizabeth Taylor as Regina, and a later, 1997 Lincoln Center production starred Stockard Channing in the leading role. Two years after that, Ms. Hellman wrote the screenplay for a film version that starred Bette Davis, and subsequently the playwright wrote “Another Part of the Forest” as a prequel to the drama.
This production, guided with spirit and finesse by Henry Wishcamper’s firm directorial hand, demonstrates his an eye for style and reverence for Ms. Hellman’s delectable dialogue. The resulting magnificent presentation is a must-see. The performance is never subtle, but rages on between overbearing confrontations and loud family arguments. It’s in the quieter moments, however, when Ms. Hellman’s story truly speaks the loudest. The serene beginning of Act III, for instance, is such a scene. In it Birdie, Oscar’s tyrannized wife, painfully admits that she’s turned to drink in order to escape the daily pain and humiliation she suffers. When Birdie (beautifully played by the extraordinary Mary Beth Fisher) confesses that she’s never known an entire day of happiness since being married, the woman’s hurt and indignation resonates loudly with the audience.
Todd Rosenthal’s dark, sumptuous Victorian drawing room set, with its entryway, grand staircase, floor-to-ceiling windows draped in velvet, its massive wooden furnishings and thick, Oriental carpeting breathes life into a time period most patrons have only seen in museums. David Lander’s naturalistic lighting creates both the soft luminescence of gaslight chandeliers and the gray melancholy of a spring thunderstorm. The upper middle class elegance created in Jenny Mannis’ period-perfect costumes complete the exquisite look and feel of this production.
Once again the Goodman has found the ideal cast for its production. Shannon Cochran is smartly arrogant and entitled as Regina. The actress radiates cool calmness until she’s crossed; then the feathers fly and we see her true colors. Larry Yando, as one of those who eat the earth, brilliantly seethes with menace, quietly manipulating those around him to benefit his own cause. As he oils his way around the room, Mr. Yando is a snake poised and ready to strike at any moment. Less controlled, but equally as intimidating and dangerous is Steve Pickering’s Oscar. He’s a raging bull, a bully and a tyrant, who doesn’t think twice about striking his subservient wife Birdie whenever he’s displeased. The most sympathetic character in the play is Horace Giddens, Regina’s ailing husband, who suffers physically and emotionally from the bickering and machinations of the Hubbard siblings. In the quiet opening scene of Act III, it’s clear that he and Birdie might’ve been a better match. Dan Waller nicely plays Leo Hubbard, Oscar’s bumbling son, with a smarmy eagerness for pleasing his elders. Rae Gray as Alexandra, Regina and Horace’s young daughter, grows from innocence to wisdom as she learns to what lengths her family’s gluttony will drive them. As Addie and Cal, the family’s devoted African American servants, Cherene Snow and Dexter Zollicoffer create strong, empathetic characters who try to bring warmth and calm to every situation. And Michael Canavan is strong as Chicagoan William Marshall, whose business offer sets this story’s wheels in motion.
Lillian Hellman’s play grips the audience from its very first scene and never lets go until the final moments. Henry Wishcamper’s production about a selfish, well-to-do family who want more is intensely paced, perfectly cast, truthfully acted and gorgeous to view. This is the Goodman Theatre at its very best.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 2-June 7 in the Albert Theatre by the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Goodman box office, by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/LittleFoxes.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.