By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
In its opening slot for 2023, South Coast Repertory chose to do something audaciously ambitious: Running two shows simultaneously on the main stage.
The shows – Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” and Branden Jenkins-Jacobs’ “Appropriate” – were paired because they explore similar dramatic territory and thematic material. The project is the brainchild of David Ivers, SCR’s artistic director.
“The Little Foxes” and “Appropriate” run on alternating nights (on weekends you can catch both shows in one day), which means this production underscores the “repertory” in the company’s name. Called “Voices of America,” the double-bill production represents the first time in the famed theater company’s 59-year history that it has attempted anything of this magnitude.
“Little Foxes” is directed by Lisa Peterson and “Appropriate” by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, but the way SCR has overlapped the two productions makes the joint production all the more intriguing: Six actors – Jess Andrews, Tessa Auberjonois, Shannon Cochran, Lea Coco, Jamison Jones and Hunter Spangler – have major roles in both shows, and Lawrence Moten’s set design is used for both.
COVID struck during previews, disrupting the joint casts and causing performances to be cancelled. While only partially back on track, each show, apart from the other, is still impressive – and, each reinforces the other.
That means the experience of seeing both shows is an incredible one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who loves theater. Though no mere words can measure up to the combined impact of the two shows, here’s what patrons can expect when they come to SCR through the end of this month.
Set in Alabama at the dawn of the 20th century, “The Little Foxes” is a portrait of three siblings of the Hubbard family: Ben Hubbard (Marco Barricelli), Oscar Hubbard (Jamison Jones) and Regina Giddens (Shannon Cochran). Ben and Oscar are on the verge of financing an industrialized cotton mill that will restore the family’s now-lost fortunes. In fact, it will make them millionaires.
To pull off the deal and keep the business in the family, the brothers need Regina to secure the seed money from her now-ailing husband Horace (Matthew Arkin), who has been living in Baltimore and whose weak heart could give out at any moment.
In her most successful play, Hellman builds incredible suspense just through the fact that the family’s entire future rests on such sickly shoulders. Will the family be able to effect this coup and become wealthy beyond their dreams – or are they counting their chickens too soon? Will Horace agree to fund the new venture, and what will Ben and Oscar do if he refuses to help?
What at first glance looks like a drawing-room period drama emerges as a razor-sharp dissection of the many ways in which greed can warp whatever it touches.
The famed playwright understands human nature, and she understands those who have had the world in the palm of their hands, have seen it slip away, and are willing to do just about anything to get it back.
While the play’s title is from a line in the Bible, it also alludes to Regina, Oscar and Ben’s efforts to outfox one another – but their ruthlessness is toxic, poisoning everything in its path.
Peterson’s expertly crafted staging has a rich regional flavor born of Hellman’s text and SCR’s evocative production, and the actors have perfected the Alabama dialect, making their delivery a delight.
The pedigree of the script and Hellman’s skill in creating a singular world yield a play that makes us shudder as we witness primal aggression but also makes us laugh – laughs that help us absorb the brutal impact of ugly actions and emotions.
Cochran’s portrayal of Regina is pleasingly shaded with nuance: cagily non-committal, never tipping her hand.
Jones’ red-faced, fiery Oscar is a choleric, sour scold whose domination of wife Birdie (Kim Martin-Cotten, filling in for Tessa Auberjonois in the performance reviewed) is shockingly vicious.
Barricelli’s Ben is every inch the calm, relaxed yet commanding gentleman of the Old South, ever willing to wait out any adversary – yet he’s, by turns, weary and exasperated.
Jones and Barricelli show both brothers as crafty, fancying themselves as able to outsmart anyone. In fact, even when dealing with each other, all three siblings expect others to bend to their will.
Arkin inherited the role of the besieged Horace last-minute from Bill Geisslinger, and he’s simply superb: His Horace is a self-effacing man who refuses to allow avarice to corrupt his soul, literally sick at heart over Regina and her family’s double-dealing ways. Yet he’s smarter and tougher than any of the Hubbards give him credit for.
Oscar’s routine cruelty has driven Birdie to drink in secret, and Martin-Cotten reveals wellsprings of pathos beneath Birdie’s forced good cheer. It’s a façade that masks bitter disappointment in her marriage and the course her life has taken.
The clan’s younger members, Leo and Alexandra, at first appear cut from the same cloth as their elders – but look again. Hunter Spangler aptly shows Leo as a younger, more impatient version of his dad – a devious schemer-in-training under Oscar’s guidance. By contrast, Jess Andrews’ Alexandra grows increasingly horrified at mom Regina’s ruthlessness, Hellman clearly using the character to represent herself.
The play’s subtext depicts a world where blacks are taken for granted and their submission to whites is a given – a condition that explains how Southern white families were able to dominate, and to prosper in the extreme.
Whereas Zalen D. King shows Hubbard servant Cal’s demeanor as pliant, Kaci Hamilton’s Addie isn’t afraid to speak her mind or stand up to the Hubbards. (King and Hamilton belatedly took over these roles from original cast members Victor A. Morris and Safiya Fredericks.)
Southern eccentricity is on full display, and it’s clear that Hellman, who based its characters on members of her own family, viewed her heritage with little fondness.
Cochran charms and dazzles as Regina despite Regina’s stance as manipulator in chief, who can more than hold her own in dealing with her brothers. You might not like her, but Hellman, Peterson and Cochran make it easy to understand her personality and motives.
Bolstering both shows is the stellar design team of Lawrence E. Moten III (scenic), Dominique Fawn Hill (costumes) and Tom Ontiveros (lighting) bolsters both shows. Visually, “The Little Foxes” is simply gorgeous due to its period trappings, while the look of “Appropriate” is less ornate and colorful yet no less substantial.
In some ways, “Appropriate” is like a contemporary retelling of Hellman’s classic. It’s set in the South (Arkansas) in the now-crumbling mansion of the Lafayette family, whose estranged members have congregated to prepare for the sale of the late patriarch’s estate.
Like the Hubbards, some of the Lafayettes are driven by greed, and as with the Hubbards, past deeds push the characters in directions they might not be prepared for.
The principal characters, as with “Little Foxes,” are a woman and her two brothers: Toni (Cochran), Bo (Jones) and Frank (Coco) Lafayette.
In tow are Bo’s wife Rachael (Paige Lindsey White, understudying for Tessa Auberjonois) and kids Ainsley (Isaac Person) and Cassie (Natalie Bright); Toni’s son Rhys (Spangler); and Frank’s New Agey fiancé, River (Andrews).
Unlike “Little Foxes,” though, there is no huge pot of gold as a payoff: proceeds from sale of the house must be used to repay a sizable bank loan dad Ray Lafayette had taken out and never repaid.
And although none of Jenkins-Jacobs’ characters are black, the full historical weight of the South’s brutality toward black slaves is on full display through the actions (and reactions) of the 21st-century whites who populate his story.
The turning point in “Appropriate” is the family’s discovery of an album filled with photos of blacks who had been lynched, which sets the family on edge and leads to debates regarding the extent of the patriarch’s racism – a key thematic element of “Appropriate.” Had Ray been a lifelong racist and anti-Semite? Or had he simply, in his final years, been a hoarder descending into dementia?
Cochran’s Toni is outspoken, sharp-tongued and sarcastic, and she doesn’t suffer fools (read: River) gladly. Coco is first-rate as the ever-contrite Frank, trying to find his way in life, make amends, reinvent himself and move on. Jones’ Bo knows his own mind yet is at his wit’s end in trying to get a handle on the spiky scenarios.
White’s Rachael seizes upon the ever-churning events to stand up to the Lafayettes. Forgiving and naïve, Andrews’ River is hilariously beholden to the flower power ideals of the ’60s and ’70s, and Bright’s precocious Cassie is an inquisitive teen curious about the world and eager to be treated like an adult.
The play’s Gothic underpinnings add elements of the supernatural to its comedic irreverence, a tone nailed by Turner Sonnenberg and her cast. Jenkins-Jacobs imparts humor as deftly as does Hellman. His characters are as much a part of our current everyday world as Hellman’s belong to an era when the Civil War was just a generation earlier.
In a laugh line that typifies the play, Bo says dad Ray couldn’t possibly have been in the KKK because “he wasn’t social enough.”
Though you’ll laugh frequently if seeing both shows, your conscience will nag you and your sense of morality will be challenged. The dialectic between the shows, which spans 120 years, is intriguing and compelling. Taken together, the shows pack a powerful one-two punch.
Peterson and Turner Sonnenberg deserve effusive praise. Both casts are superb, but Cochran, Jones, Coco, Andrews and Spangler deserve special kudos. Carrying two different plays around in your head for more than a month and portraying such dissimilar characters is an impressive feat to be applauded and celebrated. Oh – and to be seen by anyone who reads the Indy.
Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through February 26. Running times (includes intermission): “The Little Foxes,” two hours, 30 minutes; “Appropriate,” two hours, 30 minutes. Tickets: $27 to $98. Purchase / information: 714-708-5500, www.scr.org.