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The cast of Asolo Rep's The Little Foxes

 

On the surface, The Little Foxes is the type of production Asolo Repertory Theatre has always excelled at—a period piece offering scope for outstanding costumes and scenery, one with a sufficient number of well-defined characters to make the most of a rotating rep ensemble and a supply of FSU/Asolo conservatory third-year students to round out the cast. Fortunately, Lillian Hellman’s play, under the direction of Frank Galati, offers much more than surface benefits.

This 1939 piece, centered on the rapacious Hubbard family of Alabama, still has much to say about the forces of greed and ruthlessness at play in the world. As Ben Hubbard says at one point in the play, “There are hundreds of Hubbards.” Make that thousands, or millions, perhaps.

When we first meet the Hubbard family in their very comfortable home (a set designed by Alan E. Schwanke that reflects their desire to impress with touches of solidity and luxury), they are at their charming best, entertaining a would-be Northern business partner. Regina (Tracy Michelle Arnold), the sister who has been denied so much of what she wants from life by virtue of her gender, is alluring as she plays hostess, while brothers Ben (William Dick) and Oscar (Matt DeCaro) project an air of congeniality we’ll soon see is a façade. For them, it’s all about making even more money than they’ve already obtained by cheating the poor in their 1900 small town, mostly the black population.

But the deal isn’t final until Regina puts up her share of the money, which she plans to get from her estranged and ill husband Horace (David Breitbarth). Horace, however, sick of the Hubbards and what they stand for, has other ideas. And that sets the stage for conflict in a play that includes what the playwright herself called “angry comedy” to avoid becoming a more standard melodrama. That is largely because Hellman based the Hubbard clan on her own extended family, so she had plenty of material and experience to work with.

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Denise Cormier, Matt DeCaro and Tracy Michelle Arnold

 

Horace, along with his daughter Alexandra (Conservatory student Kelly Elizabeth Smith); Oscar’s belittled wife, Birdie (Denise Cormier); and servant Addie (Taylar) stand for a kinder, gentler side of humanity here. But while Regina’s actions to achieve her goals are ultimately heinous, it’s also easy enough for the audience to see what drives her to them, in a time and place where her options have been so limited and her dreams so beyond her reach.

As Regina, Arnold is fascinating to watch, as her moods shift and we can see her reacting quickly to obstacles in her way. It’s a great role, and she plays it with skill and versatility. She’s matched by the performances of the other actors: Dick as the wily Ben; DeCaro as Oscar, whose cruelty toward Birdie is both casual and practiced; Smith as an ingénue who reveals unknown strengths; Cormier as Birdie, heartbreaking in the scene where she reveals her real story; and especially Breitbarth as Horace, a man whose body may be failing him but whose mental faculties are sharp enough to deal with the iniquities of those around him.

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David Breitbarth and Tracy Michelle Arnold

 

Conservatory student Scott Kuiper is properly unlikable but understandably twitchy as Oscar and Birdie’s son, Leo, bullied by his father and thus a bully in response; and Taylar, Sean Blake as the servant Cal and Tom Coiner as the Yankee William Marshall add some depth to the line-up here. Tracy Dorman’s costumes, especially for the women, are both lovely and evocative of their characters, as with Birdie’s girlish-looking attire in Act I.

Ensuring that it all works at the high level it does is Galati, whose direction demonstrates that he understands how these characters communicate and conceal, from the inside out. The production convinces and engages throughout, as Hellman’s writing reminds us once more that, “There are people who eat the earth…and there are people who watch them do it.”

The Little Foxes continues in rotating rep through April 15; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.

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