The classic three-act structure, while out of fashion in today's theater, has a particularly enjoyable feature: the second intermission. At the first intermission, people meet up, gossip, a few grab their coats and leave, but it's rare to hear much conversation about the play itself. But by the second intermission, everybody's got some sort of opinion, and my favorite at the recent opening of The Little Foxes was from an elderly lady who said with noticeable relief, "It's so pleasant to watch a play that has a story for a change."
The Little Foxes
Intiman Theater, ends December 5
And what a story it is, an old-fashioned melodrama that nonetheless has some very relevant points to make about greed and how capitalism rewards ruthlessness more than enterprise. Lillian Hellman's 1939 play is set in Alabama in 1900 and focuses on three siblings: the brutish Oscar (Peter Lohrnes), who's married into the Southern aristocracy via the sweet but tremulous Birdie (Jeanne Paulsen); Benjamin (Laurence Ballard), the wheeler-dealer of the trio; and Regina (Barbara Dirickson), who's married the noble but weak Horace (Frank Corrado). They've managed to entice an outside businessman into building a cotton mill in their town, but there's a snag in their plans: How are they going to get Horace to put up the $75,000 they need to clinch the deal?
The Hubbard family makes such '80s icons of greed as Trump and Milken look like lemonade-stand vendors. Director Warner Shook has trumpeted the "blue chip" cast of local actors he's gathered for the principals, and well he should. (It makes one wonder why Intiman has so often chosen to import New York and, God help us, LA folks to fill the ranks.) Dirickson and Ballard, in the showiest parts, are wonderful, particularly since both actors are so rarely given a crack at such unsympathetic roles. Plotting, scheming, and at one point literally snarling, they revel in the sheer joy of selfishness and greed, and how those who rapaciously "eat the earth and eat all the people on it" (as the Hubbard's servant Addie says) can find the pursuit of riches a sheer delight.
As the jaws of Hellman's drama close on the few decent characters, it becomes clear that her work transcends melodrama by showing the real suffering of the good in such a world, particularly in a scene where for one moment the heartbreakingly fragile Birdie admits that "in 22 years I haven't had a single day of happiness." It's a potent reminder that the game of money and power has dire consequences for those without the ruthlessness to play.