Is it just me or do most plays produced these days – even those written long ago – seem to echo our current political situation? Neither the family in uneasy economic straits in The Humans nor the tale of a business bully who goes to Washington in Born Yesterday actually mention Donald Trump by name, but it is hard to watch either and not think of The Orange One.
The same certainly goes for Lillian Hellman’s 1939 saga of venality and avarice, The Little Foxes, currently receiving a crackling good production at Palm Beach Dramaworks, under the restrained but effective direction of J. Barry Lewis. Hellman set her drama of Southern discomfort at the turn of the 20th century, but its genteel backstabbing among the Hubbard and Giddens clans will feel familiar to students of current events.
Already plenty wealthy by 1900 standards, the Hubbard siblings – Oscar (James Andreassi), Ben (Dennis Creaghan) and their sister Regina (Kathy McCafferty) – all but vibrate with greed at the prospect of a business merger between their cotton crops and the mills of Chicago industrialist William Marshall (Frank Converse).
No sooner have Oscar and Ben agreed to the deal that they are busy planning to cheat Regina out of her share, a scheme they pursue at their own peril. Regina, you see, had already been cut out of their father’s will for the crime of being female, a slight which only heightens her hunger for revenge.
Regina is one of the towering woman’s roles of the American theater. Originated on stage by Tallulah Bankhead, then played indelibly by Bette Davis on film, and more recently on Broadway by Elizabeth Taylor, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, the part comes with considerable baggage. Now welcome McCafferty into that heady sorority, a Southern charmer you would never want to turn your back on.
Underestimated for her intelligence and cunning by her brothers and patronized by her ailing husband Horace (Rob Donohoe), who turns a deaf ear to her acquisitive zeal, Regina is all velvet gloves shielding deadly-sharp talons.
McCafferty claims the role – and the production – as her own, but director Lewis understands that the “Foxes” of the title is plural and the play was always intended to be an ensemble piece. Without muting McCafferty’s eventual ferocity, he also focuses our attention on the entire cast, notably Dramaworks mainstay Creaghan as cold, calculating Ben and Andreassi – first seen locally in last season’s Arcadia – as more boorish brother Oscar. The latter has kept under his thumb his alcoholic wife Birdie (Denise Cormier, heart-breaking in her wounded bird performance) and his none-too-bright son, though eager to do his father’s biding, Leo (Taylor Anthony Miller).
No theater company in South Florida has consistently superlative design credits like Dramaworks, as this production again demonstrates. Michael Amico’s sumptuous mansion interior instantly establishes the family’s wealth, as do Brian O’Keefe’s rich, period costumes. Add in Paul Black’s mood lighting and Brad Pawlak’s subtle soundscape, and you see the care that the company lavishes on the classics.
The Little Foxes is not without its baldly melodramatic touches, like Horace’s third act crawl up the winding staircase for his life-saving medicine, as Regina looks on with indifference. Still, note how well Lewis has his actors underplay the moment, without losing its inherent horror. Like the title animal, this is a sly, vulpine production of a play that retains its visceral impact nearly 80 years after it first seduced audiences.
THE LITTLE FOXES, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Nov. 12. $55-90. 561-514-4042.