By Bradley Rohlf
St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents a powerful staging of “The Litttle Foxes,” with a star-studded ensemble exploring Lillian Hellman’s thoughtful 1939 script for a maximum modern impact.
It is 1900 and the Hubbard family has come a long way. In the post-reconstruction era, the social order of the American South has shifted, at least in this small town – the “Southern Aristocracy” plantation owners have begun to wane in status, and the formerly lowly shopkeepers are on the rise, as the virtues of capitalism and building wealth through business acumen are now in vogue.
Brothers Ben (Chuck Brinkley) and Oscar (Bob Gerchen) are about to finalize a deal with a businessman from Chicago (Richard Lewis). Their sister, Regina (Kari Ely), is married to the town banker and is also a party to the contract. This arrangement will bring the cotton mills to the cotton, and cement their future as a truly wealthy and influential family.
But of course, nothing is that simple when money and family are in the mix, especially when Regina’s husband Horace (William Roth), who holds the purse strings to her side of the deal, is away in Baltimore, bedridden and under the care of doctors.
In the midst of this, the underlying tensions in the family’s relationships rise to the surface. Oscar’s wife Birdie (Laurie McConnell) does not live up to his expectations of a how a wife and mother should behave, and their son Leo (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) is an entitled and incompetent ne’er-do-well.
The family servants Addie (Wendy Greenwood) and Cal (Dennis Jethro II) hear and see everything in the house, so any intended secrets are not long for this world.
Under John Contini’s skillful direction, the cast displays a full array of attitudes toward conflict. Marking the major way points on this spectrum are the ambivalent Birdie, the ambitious Regina, and her naive daughter Alexandra (Bridgette Bassa).
The relationships on display may be Shakespearean in complexity, but the action is all pressed into one living room. Patrick Huber designs and lights a picture of faded glory, simultaneously dingy and grandiose.
The nuance in which the human condition is examined in this play is deserving of a multi-page essay, perhaps even an academic tome. The performances bring to life a full display of human – evil seems too hefty of a word – but all the ickiness and harm that comes from being driven by our base selfish desires. The relevance this takes is not so much in the mere display of these behaviors, but the way they are normalized in a society.
The single-room setting mirrors the tunnel-vision of the driving characters. This setting compounds the conflict into mounting pressure. The only hope is to get out, but few characters see that possibility.
Exposure to a great deal of pressure can result in either combustion or the creation of a precious stone. While the characters’ lives explode, this play is a diamond.
“The Little Foxes” is presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio Sept. 28 – Oct. 14 (Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.) at The Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. For more information, visit www.stlas.org. Tickets are available through MetroTix or one hour before showtime at the box office.