AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Laird Williamson
Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Lillian Hellman wrote "The Little Foxes" in 1939 and set it in a small Southern town in 1900, but if she were alive today, she could just as easily set it today in Anywhere, U.S.A. Her story of greed and avarice rings just as true today as it did earlier. We see it in headlines about backdated stock options for company executives and high-ranking company officials being sent to prison for bilking their stockholders, employees and customers.

Members of the Hubbard family probably won't go to prison, at least not right away, but only because each one is trying to protect his own self-interests. The Hubbards are two brothers -- shrewd, realistic Ben (Jack Willis), the elder, and brutish Oscar (Robert Parsons) -- and their sister, Regina Giddens (Jacqueline Antaramian), a mix of Southern charm and unadulterated venom. Ben and Oscar run the store that they inherited from their father, along with his money, which came in part from cheating customers like poor blacks. Regina is married to the seriously ill Horace Giddens (Nicholas Hormann), a banker.

The action takes place in the Giddens' luxurious living room, ominously red-paneled in the set design by Robert Blackman, who also designed the handsome turn-of-the-century costumes. Lighting is by Russell H. Champa, and sound is by Steve Schoenbeck.

The siblings have been entertaining and negotiating with a Chicago businessman, William Marshall (Stephen Klum), to get him to invest in their plan to build a cotton mill in their town. After they reach an agreement, the siblings' challenge is to secure Regina and Horace's share of the investment, but Horace refuses to go along with them. He sees their scheme as nothing more than another opportunity to exploit poor people by underpaying them. Joining the brothers in their scheme, albeit somewhat inadvertently at first, is Oscar's young adult son, the none-too-clever Leo (John Bull), who works at Horace's bank.

Standing in contrast to Ben, Oscar, Regina and Leo are Horace plus Alexandra (Grace Heid), Horace and Regina's 17-year-old daughter; Birdie (Julia Gibson), Oscar's abused but good-hearted wife; and Addie (Margarette Robinson) and Cal (Rhonnie Washington), the Giddens' black servants. Birdie is miserable in her marriage, a business arrangement that enabled the Hubbards to gain control of her family's fertile land; and Alexandra does a lot of growing up as she observes her elders' behavior. She's the one hope for the future. Addie and Cal are acutely aware of what's going on, but know their place -- given that the Civil War and slavery had ended only 35 years earlier.

Laird Williamson stages the production well, allowing this solid ensemble cast to delineate characters and relationships quite clearly. Only when Horace suffers another heart attack and staggers up the massive stairs does the action veer into excess.

One reason why ACT is staging "The Little Foxes" -- aside from the fact that it's an absorbing, still-relevant play -- is that the company is celebrating its 40th season. "The Little Foxes" is a tribute to its long line of distinguished productions, including a staging of "The Little Foxes" in 1979 and a revival the next season. Among the memorable performances in that earlier production was Joy Carlin's portrayal of Birdie. Carlin, still a respected actor as well as a director, was in the opening night audience for this new staging.

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