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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Little Foxes

Or: Southern Comfort

Not long ago, when I was still uncertain whether this play was a TYA show about anthropomorphic forest critters or a dark southern drama (spoiler: it’s very much the latter), I was out a’wondering past the barber theater when I heard a beleaguered moan, “and soon I’ll have no time to do anything, I’ll be consumed by Little Foxes”. ‘What a charming notion’ thought I, thinking about a ticklish end by way of a thousand nibbles. Now, having seen the show, I can still see how the verb consumed still applies, though now it brings to mind a stinking scrabble of orange fur and white teeth as the skulk of the Hubbard family seeks to tear down the world and take what they think they deserve.

It is the hight of the gilded age and in the south the nouveau riche are rising up from the ashes of the old aristocratic plantations, putting on airs, seeing the world, keeping the blacks in the fields and under their thumbs, and generally ascribing to the good ol values of “shoot it, stuff it, or marry it.” The worst, or simply smartest, of these is the Hubbard clan: Regina (Victoria Cano) Oscar (Jake Drummond) and Ben (Daniel Chenard) who together have paved the way to building a cotton mill in town, thus looking to be millionaires overnight and find a whole new market of people to swindle and cheat. The only problem with their plan is Regina’s husband Horace (Garrett Baer), up at John Hopkins for a debilitating heart condition, hasn’t backed his wife’s share of the capital. While sending her daughter Alexandra (Juli Del Prete) to fetch her husband home, Regina decides to move in on her own brothers shares: devilish machinations ensue all-round.

Director Jerrell Henderson makes full use of the roundness of action in this pre-August:Osage County puzzler. He has an excellent sense for finding the beats in the syrupy sweet or bitterly sharp exchanges of one character interpreting another and their fall out on other individuals in the room. His new fully fleshed world is accentuated by Sarah Watkins set, which goes for a deep effect of the house as well as attending to all the little intricacies before us; Kevin O’Donnell’s sound design of rushing, mocking jazz, and Caitlin McLeod’ sumptuous costumes of the era of gilded magnolias.

If only Henderson and his cast had spent a touch more time on accents. The ensemble is every man and dame jack seated deep in their performances and in their time, but the accents present either a quagmire to be stuck in or an obstacle to painfully o’er leap. Chenard’s Ben Hubbard, who could give Lucifer seminars in temptation, is delight to watch with his easing his way with fluid and commanding gestures and a treasure trove of fine sayings. His performance is only marred by choking off his voice with an iron ring of an accent, sounding a bit more like Scott’s Moriarty than Calvin Candy. But in moments of heat or terror his voice drops down into a more natural pitch, and the southern vowels spread out into a dark and exciting pool of peril, cloaking Ben’s suavity “like the very darkness”.

A consistently bright note and expertly worked performance was Nicola Rinow’s portrayal of Birdie, Oscar’s abused wife, a gentle child of the old aristocracy whose life has been made a hell by the neglect of her husband and son (Ben Beatty). Often relegated to the sidelines, Rinow never falls into merely being a bystander, but always remains alert and primed to take action, which her upbringing and station prevent her from fulfilling. She shows us Birdie’s inner workings wind up in fear of her husbands blows, or give a sad turn as she sneaks a glass of port, or giddily chime as she skips about reveling in some small happiness. Christabel Donker, as Addie, the families maid, also keeps a good strong voice and subtle performance as she tries to protect those dear to her and tiptoe round the tripwires of living room conversation. But perhaps the strongest voice, and, after Rinow’s, most complex showing comes from Horace’s southern voice, whose, vowels boom out like the first bells, wardens and weapons against evil, their power so out of place in the artfully disabled and limping figure that Baer has shut himself up in. In spite of what could have become pompous pronouncement and an inhibiting characteristic Horace still comes across as deep and subtle file, scheming his own schemes at how to outwit his wife the vixen and the vermin he married into.

The Little Foxes is still “consuming”, with all the twistyness of a who-dun-it but adding the tension of a whose-gonna-do-it tale. Even a skulk of marauders can be cute at times, and the rubrics cube of their power shifts is facinating to keep up with. The story is uncomfortable, but remains enticing for through its long hours. More than transport us to a bygone era, it reminds us that good and evil are both very petty and spring from the smallest crevices of politeness or cruelty, and that the smallest actions, or nonactions, can uncork the most thorny courses.

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