IF YOU GO
What: Lillian Hellman play about siblings fighting for control of the family business
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through Jan. 26
Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers
Cost: $40 & $45
Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org
Something else: Free parking across the street
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
FORT MYERS — Two brothers. One sister. A fortune waiting for them. A family divided against itself. Southern gentlemen. Negro maids in smart white uniforms. Grits. Elderberry wine. Beautiful clothes. Beautiful people. Terrible deeds. Florida Rep explores all this - and more - in fascinating "The Little Foxes."
The Lillian Hellman play dissects machinations of the Hubbard family. The year is 1900; amoral, ambitious brothers Ben and Oscar want to build a cotton mill - and reap the profits that have been going to the Yankees. Manipulative sister Regina holds power (or so she thinks) over husband Horace's fortune - which her brothers need. What will she sacrifice for a larger share of the profits?
The title comes from an Old Testament verse "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes." Taken as a metaphor, the Hubbard family would be the foxes poisoning both the town and individual characters with their greed.
A packed house at Friday's opening night leapt to their feet before the cast emerged for bows, greeting them with wave after wave of applause. I was less entranced. The show contains much promise: powerful moments of emotion, stirring performances and brilliant creative work. Yet, problematic staging and questionable casting make for a frustrating night. As a result, what could be transcendent is merely good.
The length of the play itself works against the cast and director. Written as three acts, Florida Rep combines the first two as one lengthy 75-minute stretch (that feels even longer). This reduces the opening set piece - which ends with a violent confrontation - to something of an afterthought. Adding a second intermission would have pushed the evening past the 2 1/2 hour mark.
The show's first act, set in Ray Recht's genteel, cream and patterned Southern parlor, features a whiplash of conversations that set the show in motion. Characters flirt, fight, drink and do business. I wish more had been done with this segment, using the conversational battles, dalliances and barbs (spoken and unspoken) to create more of a dramatic pulse. As it is, the show, fascinating as it is, takes far too long to achieve liftoff.
Something feels missing in the opening scenes, as if the cast was determined to speed through the prologue and setup as fast as possible to get to the "real action." Yet, these moments lay the foundation for the entire play. Audiences discover the root of Regina's ambition, the source of Birdie's unhappiness, a peek at Leo's character and multiple glimpses of the Hubbard family dynamics.
Frequent Florida Rep director Maureen Heffernan helms "The Little Foxes." Her previous work includes "Sylvia" and "Dancing at Lughnasa." Heffernan favors a highly stylized method, moving her actors like chess pieces across the stage, settling them into position and letting them deliver the dialogue. Here, with Hellman's verbose prose, the effect flattens the play, often leaving the cast strung out like pearls on a chain and fighting to inject life into the lines.
Hellman's script provides a sharp commentary on family squabbles and internecine sibling warfare. Verbal confrontations rise out of the show like honeysuckle blossoms opening in the gloaming; these are the play's best moments. At these times, everything drops away - the squeaking chairs, the shuffling programs, the clinking of glasses. For several spellbinding stretches, audiences can get lost in watching the Hubbard family tear at each other like a pack of wild dogs - or, if you wish, the titular "little foxes" of the title.
Heffernan plays with levels during the many altercations, using stairs, chairs, piano, footstools and a deliciously striped settee. I love that she uses height to reflect the wavering balance of power in the show. Recht's crooked staircase that dominates the stage serves as yet another visual metaphor.
Veteran Sara Morsey owns most of these scenes. Her vicious Regina (the name is no accident) seems less a stately Southern queen than a cobra. Morsey retains one of the play's only effective accents, which she uses to good effect.
What Morsey does so well is to elevate her moments with a sidewise glance, a cutting tone of voice or a gesture. She slices into Peter Thomasson's Ben and Mark Chambers' Oscar like a plow going through tilled earth as she wrangles larger and larger concessions from them. A single "Let me finish!" rings with steel - and the promise of malice to come. Her towering, elegant performance welds the play together like an oak tree towering over an ancient plantation.
Compared to the majestic verbal battles, staged with such care, other scenes feel less powerful. Design issues complicate the staging. Wedging a full dining room into the rear of the set pushes much of the parlor space forward across Florida Rep's wide stage. Too often, the audience doesn't know where to look. The actors are left perched like dolls among the furniture spread across the stage.
Very little actually happens in "The Little Foxes;" the characters scheme, talk of schemes, fight and scheme some more. Even as Heffernan injects movement by having actors engage in commonplace actions like serving coffee, sipping port and nibbling cakes, the attempt falls flat. The events feel like the distractions they are - with the actors performing the task, then locking back into place.
Even with these issues, it is clear that Heffernan grasps the dynamics of the play and its over-arching structure. She teases a stellar performance out of Carrie Lund as tortured alcoholic Birdie. The second half opens a fiercely brave turn from Lund as she goes from gay party girl to sobbing, crumpled drunk.
Too often trapped in the same middle-age hausfrau roles that have defined her career the past few years, Lund proves her skill and range here. Birdie remains the spoiled "tender grape" at the center of the play; Lund gives voice to the character's broken hopes and dreams with her fluttering voice, whimpering matter and ultimately, her tears. I do wish her accent had remained steady throughout the night.
Florida Rep intern Brian Hatch holds his own on stage as callow, sneering Hubbard offspring Leo. Hatch looks very, very good in Roberta Malcolm's interpretation of the tailored period suits; watching him leer as he refers to the "very elegant worldly ladies" of Mobile (prostitutes) might be one of night's unexpected pleasures. Watch for his utterly confused confrontation with Mark Chambers as the two wrangle over a safe deposit box.
Peter Thomasson slides easily into the role of oily, conniving older brother Ben. Newcomer Darrick Penny offers delightful comic relief and wonderful comic timing as servant and houseboy Cal. Patricia Idlette brings understated compassion and knowledge as maid Addie. I like that Heffernan uses Idlette as a silent watcher in scenes, although I wish she had made the presence more overt.
Craig Bockhorn brings gravitas to his weak-limbed but strong-willed Horace. Even seated in a wheelchair, his foghorn voice blasts across the stage. One of the night's best scenes features Morsey and Bockhorn in a shrieking, screaming, all-out war of words that starts in the parlor, winds around the staircase and continues offstage. The two actors lift a simple series of angry, bitter recriminations to high art; watch for the artful way the director creates tension by pausing, then continuing the confrontation on the way up the stairs.
While the entire 10-person cast gives strong performances, some actors feel less than right for the roles they are cast in. Mark Chambers, so diverting in "Tru," bellows, yells and barks, but never makes a convincing portrait of the brutish but once charming Oscar. Intern Lindsay Clemmons feels somewhat overmatched as Alexandra; her shrill voice and affected whine seems at odds with the delicate magnolia blossom she's portraying.
Recht's gorgeous set has out-size doors and windows, but just the frames of walls and ceiling moulding. Audiences get glimpses of the rear dining room and a second story off the staircase. Fabulous period furniture in the melange of styles and patterns that a wealthy Southern family would have accumulated dot the space. Carpenters even laid a wooden floor over the stage; inviting carpets and small rugs float in the space and add another layer of pattern and decoration.
One novel touch that puzzled much of the audience came in Recht's use of a boldly patterned wallpaper across the entire side and rear of the stage. The vaguely floral abstract design serves a variety of functions. It opens the space considerably - and saves money by not forcing Florida Rep to build the parts of the set (walls, a streetscape) the paper represents. Also, the pattern effectively disappears into the distance, creating the impression of even more space when the audience looks into the set. David M. Upton's lighting design allows for various mood shifts just with a change in tones.
Malcolm's gorgeous costumes capture the elegance of the aughts in the refined moonlight and magnolias atmosphere of the play. Morsey wears a stunning period art noveau piece with extensive beadwork around the collar and shoulders. Lund appears in the first act in an intricate pale camel-colored layered gown with embroidery, a decorated vest, high collar, cameo and bustle. Cast members wear period shoes (down to the buttons) and ladies have on multiple layers of petticoats that require them to sweep sideways into chairs.
Even if it isn't perfect, "The Little Foxes" offers a big helping of bold performances, a stunning set and beautiful period costumes. Sara Morsey and Carrie Lund create amazing portraits of two entirely different Southern women, while Craig Bockhorn brings a powerful presence to a stricken gentleman.
"You ain't born in the South unless you're a fool." Email me, email@example.com. Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.