ORLANDO — Lillian Hellman’s play “The Little Foxes” paints a dour portrait of the Deep South, where greed runs rampant and family loyalty is as deep and wide as a small thimble.
But while it’s certainly fun watching the Hubbard family stoke on their Snidley Whiplash moustaches behind one another’s backs, this play might also be remembered for being a stunning vehicle for a great scenery-chewing actress in the lead role of Regina Hubbard Giddens.
Mad Cow Theatre has mounted a handsome production of the Hellman classic, with a beautifully designed living room in the Giddens family’s Alabama home circa 1900, and their usual selection of Central Florida’s top acting talent is right on target here, with Ame Livingston leading them as a woman whose ambition for the good life could rival any man’s.
Regina is a strong-willed, tough-minded woman at a time when those were not considered great virtues for women, and she has to put up quite a struggle to obtain both wealth and freedom in a family where the men decide money matters.
Her two avarice-minded brothers, Benjamin and Oscar, have maintained control over the family inheritance and obtained small fortunes, but Regina is saddled with a timid and sickly husband, Horace, who is anything but a shrewd businessman.
And could there be a sadder sight than watching Regina suppress her own insatiable greed, knowing her husband lacks the ambition and wiles of her two brothers, who are ready at a moment’s notice to swindle anybody in sight so they can add to their riches.
Yep, this is definitely fun stuff.
Who Has Played Regina is Past Productions?
The original 1939 production featured a real Hollywood and Broadway superstar, Tallulah Bankhead, as Regina, while the 1941 film version gave us none other than the legendary Bette Davis in the lead. When film director Mike Nichols directed a Broadway revival in 1967, Anne Bancroft was Regina. It’s the kind of role that an actress known for larger-than-life portrayals finds irresistible.
Livingston is marvelous in the Mad Cow production as well, whether she’s dueling with her patronizing brothers, letting their black maid Addie know when it’s the final word on a matter, or dressing down her already humiliated husband. And there are certainly plenty of other performers in this production who match Livingston’s talent.
Hellman, who was born in New Orleans to a Jewish family, and whose mother Julia was from Alabama, appears to have a good sense of the ways Southern families operate behind closed doors.
(Legend has it that in 1940, Hellman got into an epic feud with Bankhead, who wanted to perform a benefit for Finnish Relief — Finland had just been invaded by the USSR, and Hellman, who was a member of the Communist party in the 1930s, objected because she was devoted to Soviet Russia.)
Today, armed with a great cast, “The Little Foxes” is enormous fun to watch — in part to see a strong woman trying to outwit the overbearing and imperious men around her, and also for what may be one of the most gloriously vicious poison pen letters to the Deep South ever written.
For starters, Regina’s brother Oscar is married to Birdie, an alcoholic who he isn’t shy about slapping around on occasion; the only reason he married her was to acquire her family’s plantation and cotton fields.
Oscar and his despotic brother Benjamin want to construct a cotton mill but need an additional $75,000, so they ask Regina to invest in the project. However, Horace refuses when Regina asks him for the money, infuriating her.
Instead they turn to Oscar’s dimwitted son Leo, who works as a bank teller and has access to railroad bonds in the bank’s safe deposit box. Ah, those scheming Southerners!
Who Performs In this Production?
And what a cast! Bob Brandenberg has a grand old time as Benjamin, roaring out in a haughty, grandiose manner, with a decidedly non-humble opinion on just about everything. He’s awfully quick to jump into the plot to “borrow” those railroad bonds.
Steven Lane has a very different role, as the sick and soft-spoken Horace, who seems like the black sheep in this family, a man who lacks the Hubbard family’s intense and selfish desire for wealth and power, and who suffers dearly as a result. The role may be more low key than the kind of claws-barring roles that Livingston and Brandenburg get, but Lane is very moving just the same.
I also particularly enjoyed Roberta Emerson as Addie, a black maid at a time when the “colored help” knew their place and didn’t make waves. Emerson is glorious portraying a woman with a commitment to this family, particular Horace and his daughter Alexandra, and she easily transcends any stereotypes about the character and creates a terrific portrait of a woman forced to stand by silently as she witnesses disasters on the way.
Great cast, strong script — this is what distinguished theater is all about.
Mad Cow Theatre’s production of “The Little Foxes” has its final performances tonight at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the theater at 54 W. Church St. in downtown Orlando.
To learn more, call Mad Cow at 407-297-8788.
Their other production is “Buyer And Cellar,” a comedy by Johnathan Tolins about the price of fame. “Buyer And Celler” opened on Aug. 10 and continues through Sept. 2.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.