Horace Giddens will spend his last days in a wheelchair, brought down by a lethal mix of failing health and profound regrets. His death comes after a short-lived game of financial cat-and-mouse with his estranged wife Regina, but no sooner does he tie her hands than she undoes the knot. He can only surrender, beaten again by a soulless genius of deception, so consumed by greed that she doesn't even know she's sick.
"I'll do no more harm now," Horace says. "I'll die my own way. I'll do it without making the world any worse. I leave that to you."
But as cunning as Regina is, she needs help to hatch all that misery, and she gets it in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, the current entry at Cygnet Theatre. Her brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard are also her comrades in arms, corporate goons who build on the family empire simply for the sake of its expansion in the post-Civil War South. The family, of course, is dying of its own weight, and before it's all over, Regina will have estranged her only daughter. The simple storyline is devilishly difficult to mount-but Hellman and director Sean Murray are in lockstep in their approaches, and that's where this production so nicely succeeds.
That's not what's important right now, though. What's important right now is the arrival of Mr. Marshall, (Michael Harvey), a high-roller from Chicago who seeks funding to move some cotton factories to the South amid its cheaper labor pool. The family bows and scrapes accordingly-but behind the scenes, Regina (a very assured Rosina Reynolds) soon finds herself confounded on two fronts. Not only can't she persuade Horace (also played by Harvey) to loan her a share of the capital, she's learned that her brothers are out to con her as well. Like Lady Macbeth before her, she's got still another defensive scheme up her sleeve. And also like Lady Macbeth, this is the last one she'll need.
Hellman takes lots of care to short-hop her characters' speeches-it's clear the Hubbards aren't new to back-room business deals, and Hellman's unstylized language colors this trait. And her Regina is an enigma among tragic figures, a woman in a male-dominated business climate, so coldly forceful you don't even notice her gender before she's emasculated you. She and her brothers are deadly sociopaths, unblinking in their wish that Regina's daughter Alexandra (Rachael VanWormer) marry her cousin Leo (Joseph Panwitz) so money can stay in the family. Alexandra's having none of it, of course-but even her final confrontation with Regina fails to break the latter's self-consumptive grip on her sanity.
Hellman and Murray resist the tricky temptation in this assignment-neither treats the play as an isolated statement on corporate immorality. There's a good matter-of-factness to the piece, a feeling that the Hubbards' skullduggery is all in a day's work (aided by the horizontal touches to Murray's set, Jeanne Reith's costumes and Eric Lotze's lights). If there's a lesson behind the show, it's that such cutthroat tactics aren't confined to the boardroom, or even to gender. As a political and social progressive, Hellman, who died in 1984, warned about just such insidiousness from every intimate angle. In fact, The Little Foxes, from 1939, is loosely based on a group of Hellman family friends.
It's also one of a sea of "anti-American" pieces that attracted J. Edgar Hoover's attention. It helped get Hellman blacklisted during Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunts and fueled an FBI file on her even though she'd never been busted for so much as spitting on the sidewalk.
Little did Hoover know that her play's title was taken from a biblical passage about the devastation that hungry foxes visit on grape arbors. The smallest guys can't reach the fruit, but they kill the entire crop as they chew on the base of the vines. That's the Hubbards all over, and this show portrays them accordingly. Nice job.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Nov. 19. The Little Foxes runs through Dec. 18 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., College Area. $22-$26. 619-337-1525, ext. 3.