The Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, DC (7th and F Streets, NW)
Away from home consulting on Garrick playbills at the Folger Library, I suddenly discover “The Shakespeare Theatre” — not at the Folger, but in a theatre downtown, at 7th and F Streets, NW, and a fine production of The Little Foxes, with Elizabeth Ashley as Regina.
Ashley is some decades away from the near-sylph-like heroine of Barefoot in the Park. She has a “generous” figure now, and a commanding presence. Regina is as grasping and self-aggrandizing as they come, and so it is not surprising when she finally turns the tables on her equally mendacious but less lucky brothers Oscar and Benjamin, along with Oscar’s dull-witted son Leo, getting a few hard knocks in the school of mendacity. And her daughter Alexandra seems in some ways a dead ringer for her mother, though as yet she keeps a stiff upper lip, morally speaking, and so serves as a low-key surrogate for an audience that sees all too clearly that her elders are a poisonous bunch. Even the father she idolizes, Horace Giddens, is not above taking pleasure (the arid pleasure of a dying man, but pleasure of a sort) in visiting some vindictive punishment on his vindictive wife before he dies of a heart attack under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
It’s a credit to the sturdiness of Hellman’s dramaturgy, though no compliment to subtlety, that the play holds its audience well, if well acted. This cast is especially strong from top to bottom, and they have been expertly well directed by a director whose work I’ve not seen before, Doug Hughes. The dominant earth tones of the setting — a plush, somewhat pretentious but still comfortable, well-to-do house of middle Robber Baron style became almost metaphorical here, representing a late agrarian community looking to profit mightily from a more highly industrialized approach to picking and processing cotton. Hughes moves his actors skillfully and unobtrusively into and out of positions of dominance or subordination, using unequal zones of light and dark, made more realistic by an abundance of milky globe table lamps occasionally turned up or down or off to modify the atmosphere or to change focus or shift tension. Victorian chairs and sofas, characteristic and well-defined yet comfortable, dressed the scene well and convincingly, and the staircase — oh, the fateful staircase, on which Horace in his attempted climb to retrieve his heart medicine meets his predictable demise — is prominent enough, at the upper end of this wide parlor, beyond which a dining room appears on the other side of sliding doors, to make us suspect that it will carry a thematic as well as a multiple human load.
Hellman’s dramaturgy is in fact a little crude, leaning as it does on a double set of conventions drawn from both the well-made play and melodrama. The $88,000 of Union Pacific bonds in Horace Giddens’s safe deposit box, once mentioned, are sure to turn up — though, in a deft twist, the empty box from which Leo has stolen them, and not the bonds themselves, is what we see on stage. That’s the inanimate object so dear to the hearts of well-made-playwrights, and it wields the power and the capacity for reorienting the action out of proportion to its size and lightness of weight. As for melodrama, Hellman tends to reduce the conflict in the play to the struggle between good and bad; but here the deft twist is that there are hardly any good guys. It’s just that some of them are even worse than others, and the worst of all — Benjamin and Regina — tend also to be the smartest and most adept at surviving.
David Sabin’s Benjamin and Ashley’s Regina are well matched in this respect — they are the chief characters, after all, and it is their struggle for the dominant share in the industrial enterprise that defines and orients the action. Benjamin turns out to be a good loser, in the end; he can see further and more clearly than his less intelligent brother Oscar, and he realizes they will all make it big, very big, eventually. And so it is to Ben that Hellman gives the almost embarrassingly blatant thematic summary speech at the end, which Hughes directs Sabin to deliver downstage center (or just right of center), effectively to the audience: it’s the Hubbards of the world who will end up owning America. They may not all be named Hubbard, but they are Hubbards (by this moment they are, we understand, a generic term) all the same. In this day — some have described it as America’s Second Robber Baron period — this day of Euron bankruptcy and Arthur Anderson accounting felonies and, only yesterday, the felonious mis-reporting by WorldCom of several billion dollars of expenses, the prediction has the unmistakable ring of truth. That, as much as the effective clarity of Hellman’s writing — an action whose intrigue sustains attention and whose characters have the ring of unsavory truth — is what held the audience tonight. It makes me want to track down the William Wyler film of the play, with Bette Davis, and see how well it adapts to the screen. I’ll bet it adapts extremely well.