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The Little Foxes

The Goodman Theatre dusts off a classic with Lillian Hellman's Southern gothic.

The cast of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, directed by Henry Wishcamper, at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

It's been more than 70 years since Lillian Hellman's emotionally eviscerating family drama The Little Foxes premiered. But the machinations of the Hubbard family – a nest of vipers shaded by magnolias – still has the power to make your blood run cold. Directed by Henry Wishcamper for the Goodman Theatre, the Southern gothic set in the early 20th century mightily succeeds as a domestic thriller and a scathing condemnation of the mentality that paved the way for the likes of modern-day robber barons like Bernie Madoff.

Hellman's impeccably constructed, three-act drama unfolds as Hubbard siblings Oscar, Ben, and Regina are trying to close a business deal with a Yankee planning to bring a lucrative cotton mill to the vast plantation that helped secure the family's fortune. The Hubbards grew up as the children of a shopkeeper, their considerable wealth built on charging the near-starving local residents obscene prices for a bit of bacon or a yard of cotton. Their money, however, couldn't buy them status. Roughly 40 years after the Civil War, Birdie, Oscar's wife, spends her days drinking to dull the pain inflicted by a brutally abusive husband and pining for the genteel days of her childhood. Meanwhile, Regina, Oscar, and Ben have their sights set firmly on the future, each willing to destroy the other in order to grab the biggest share of the incoming mill-generated pie.

Hellman's dialogue exposes the Hubbards as fascinating, conscienceless monsters capable of crushing those below them without a backward glance. Their near-sociopathic lack of empathy is established in the first scene as they assure Northern business man William Marshall (Michael Canavan) that the docile Southern workforce (they throw the "n" word around freely here) will gratefully accept a $3 weekly wage – unlike those troublesome Boston mill workers striking to increase a pay rate of $8 a week. The sticking point in the deal is Regina's ailing husband, Horace, determined to die without causing any more pain to the underclass on which he's built his fortune. The plot hinges on whether the brothers or Regina will be able to get hold of Horace's money. It's a chess match played on a mine field.

Wishcamper's ensemble captures the cruelty, pathos, and tragedy of the Hubbard clan with blazing impact. At the white-hot center is Shannon Cochran's Regina, a character often described as the villain of the piece, but Cochran infuses that villainy with a layer of intelligence. In another era, Regina would have been a CEO or a top-level politician. But as a Southern belle, she's navigating a world in which she's supposed to be merely ornamental. Her triumph lies in her ferocious unwillingness to flutter prettily on the sidelines. Cochran turns in a delicious performance. Her Regina is conniving, oozing with sex appeal, and cunning enough to outplay those who are foolish enough to underestimate her.

As Ben Hubbard, Larry Yando is equally enthralling. An impossibly dashing gentleman with an irresistible smile and the soul of a reptile. In one memorably revealing scene he grasps Regina's hand with brotherly affection – and then subtly turns that grasp into a vise. You can see eyes turn cold. Steve Pickering's Oscar isn't quite as smart as his siblings. He lets his brutishness show, especially when he's backhanding his broken wife as if she were a worthless farm animal. Mary Beth Fisher's Birdie combines clueless privilege with genuine kindness. This is a woman who weeps for the animals her husband shoots as recreation, and yearns for the blissful prewar days.

As Oscar and Birdie's spineless, cloddish son Leo, Dan Waller walks off with every scene he's in. Leo's sense of entitlement makes him loathsome, and his inability to keep up with the machinations of his family make him pathetic. He's an unintentional clown among Machiavellians. There's also crucial supporting work from John Judd as a dying man determined to do no more evil before he goes. As servants Cal and Addie, Dexter Zollicoffer and Cherene Snow are portraits of basic human decency, stoically and silently watching while catering to a clan willing to eat its young. And as Regina's daughter Alexandra, Rae Gray evolves from doe-eyed innocence to stoney-eyed wisdom.

Set designer Todd Rosenthal has created a massive, gorgeously atmospheric and richly appointed mansion for the Hubbards, detailed down to the elaborately framed ancestral portraits on the walls and the lush tapestries hanging from the three-story tall windows. Jenny Mannis' costume design has each character dressed in character-enhancing garb: Birdie in all delicate pastels and ruffles, Regina in form-fitting greens and blacks.

Late in the final scene, Ben delivers a brief, mesmerizing monologue on the brand-new century and the place people like him will have at the top of its food chain. It's a speech that wouldn't be out of place in a contemporary board room, which further accents the fact that the Hubbards are still all too familiar. Hellman's masterpiece remains a scathing social commentary and an edge-of-your-seat thriller.