‘The Little Foxes’: Southern dysfunction at its best

Craig Mathers and Cheryl D. Singleton in “The Little Foxes.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

BOSTON – The dysfunctional Southern family has long been a staple of American drama, perhaps best exemplified by Tennessee Williams’ 1955 work “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

But before Williams explored the topic, the pioneering female playwright Lillian Hellman got there first, creating indelible characters in a warring family in a small Southern town at the dawn of the 20th Century in her drama “ “The Little Foxes,” now being presented through March 17 by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

It is an excellent ensemble cast but it is also a showcase for Anne Gottlieb as Regina Hubbard Giddens, the alluring but scheming woman whose thirst for fortune is exceeded by only her two brothers, bachelor Ben Hubbard (Remo Airaldi) and Oscar Hubbard (Will McGarrahan).

The rest of the cast is right there with her: Amelia Broome as the gracious and caring Birdie, whose marriage to the controlling and abusive Oscar exists in name only; Craig Mathers as banker Horace Giddens, on his last legs after an extended illness; Michael John Ciszewski and Rosa Procaccino as cousins Leo Hubbard and Alexandra Hubbard; and Cheryl D. Singleton and Kinson Theodaris as Addie and Cal, servants in the Giddens home.

Singleton is the devoted housekeeper/cook who manages to stand up against Oscar’s abuse and provides refuge and comfort for Birdie and Alexandra.

The Hubbard brothers have for many years operated a family store that has made its profits off the backs of poor blacks and whites and by loaning money at rates that would make a loan shark blush.

This time, a business deal is being consummated with after-dinner glasses of port in the Giddens’ living room, which oozes Southern hospitality, as noted by Chicago businessman William Marshall (Bill Mootos).

Anne Gottlieb and Amelia Broome in “The Little Foxes.” Photo: Mark S, Howard

But it is the smell of the dollar which is most overpowering. Ben and Oscar Hubbard appear to be all-in on a deal that would see several cotton mills built close to the local cotton fields, which would not only cut transportation costs, but also avoid the higher wages and nasty strikes of the mills up North. Marshall makes it clear a visit to Chicago by Regina should be part of the deal.

Ben notes they are not Southern aristocrats – the only one is Birdie, who grew up in the finest estate in the area, an estate the Hubbard brothers decided to buy when it fell into ruin and which Birdie longs to return to its former glory.

Marshall will offer $400,000 towards the venture, but the Hubbards would still retain a controlling interest if the family puts up $225,000: $75,000 each from Ben and Oscar and, ideally, $75,000 from Horace. There’s just one catch: Horace has been sequestered for five months at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and Regina, over the objections of others, dispatches daughter Alexandra to Baltimore to haul Horace back in a effort to make sure she doesn’t lose out on the sweepstakes.

Things begin to get very complicated: theft, blackmail, and an untimely death that will tilt the balance of power dramatically

The production values are simply sublime. It’s hard to overstate the opulence and attention to detail of Janie E, Howland’s living room of the Giddens House, with its many working chandeliers, hardwood floors and period furniture.

At a recent performance theater-goers were encouraged to photograph it, much like they were for Derek McLane’s spectacular set for “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”

Gail; Astrid Buckley’s costumes are Southern belles at their best; Karen Perlow’s lighting works in concert with Howland’s chandeliers to cast the appropriate shade during the dramatic moments and Dewey Dellay’s moody incidental music foretells the dramatic events that will shatter the family as the mood of the piece grows ever darker.

The program notes that “The Little Foxes” was a work of its time, so the language is raw and consistent with how the characters would have spoken at that time and place.

The Lyric Stage has made a wise decision to let the rough language of the original text – which includes racial epithets – stand.

The program notes that the language and references reflect the attitudes of the times and the references are “essential elements” in the themes of the play.

When things get hot, it’s good to have the steady hand of director Scott Edmiston – one of Lyric Stage Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos’ favorite hired guns – at the helm.

Edmiston has worked with many of cast before and he has a feel for the ebb and flow of a piece where the next revelations or bit of back-stabbing will raise the emotional bar to an almost unbearable level.

Hellman will see to it that her characters get what they deserve in the end. When the smoke clears and the last bit of family blood has been shed, there will be a winner of sorts.

But perhaps not, given the decision ultimately made by Alexandra. The “winner” will be alone – very alone.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of “the Little Foxes.” Written by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Set design by Janie E. Howland. Lighting design by Karen Perlow, Sound design and original music by Dewey Dellay. Costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through March 17. lyricstage.com

The ensemble in a scene from “The Little Foxes.” Photo: Mark S, Howard