The Little Foxes at the Shaw Festival (a review)

(June 16, 2008) What a difference a director seems to make! At the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), the cast of The Little Foxes is practically the same as the cast of Getting Married (six actors appear in both plays). (I review Getting Married in another post.) In the Shaw comedy, everything comes off like clockwork, and the fun never stops. But the Lillian Hellman drama leaves you waiting for a climax that never really comes.

Emsworth previews the shows on the 2009 Shaw Festival playbill at this post.

I have already complained at length about the ferocious Stalinist ideology of The Little Foxes in this post; in another I have griped about the holes in Hellman’s plot. Despite these objections, the play is a near-masterpiece. Hellman’s characters are frighteningly real, every word in the script tells, and the story builds to what ought to be a shocking denoument.

But not in this production. For the first half of the play (by far the best half) the great questions are whether Horace Gibbens is really going to come home to the nest of snakes that is the Hubbard family (his wife Regina and her brothers Ben and Oscar), and whether he will go along with the siblings’ scheme that he join them in investing $75,000 into a new cotton mill business. When Horace finally does come home, disabled in body but determined to frustrate the machinations of his wife and her brothers, the lines are drawn, and we all brace for heavy weather.

But just when you expect to be squirming in your seats and wiping your perspiring palms on your pants, this production lets you down. Laurie Paton, who is Regina, is an outstanding actress, but here she neither looks or acts like the Jezebel she is supposed to be playing; she looks too pleasant. Nor does David Jansen, as the likeable and sympathetic Horace, project the steely resolve needed for him to win the war of wills with his wife. Between these two sparks do not fly, and in their scenes together the tension does not build.

And so, at the play’s climax, we are not nearly as afraid for Horace, or for his and Regina’s uncorrupted daughter Alexandra (Krista Colosimo), or for any of the other characters, as the playwright wanted us to be. Nor, for a play with harsh political overtones, are we fearful for America, as Lillian Hellman fervently wanted us to be. As for Alexandra, who represents Hellman’s hope for revolution and a more “just” America, Ms. Colosimo is made to deliver all of Hellman’s shrill, socialist soapbox lines at the end of the play at the same high pitch.

I cannot see Peter Krantz, a Shaw Festival regular who plays Oscar Hubbard in The Little Foxes, on the stages of the Shaw Festival without a return of the visceral feelings that he aroused in those that saw him as the predatory pervert in the Shaw Festival’s production of The Coronation Voyage several years ago. My reaction is quite unfair to Mr. Krantz, and after seeing him in Getting Married as the sympathetic, comic Boxer, I thought I might have shaken this unfortunate association. But his character in The Little Foxes is every bit as repulsive as his character in The Coronation Voyage, and as Oscar Hubbard he quite undid the salutory effect of his portrayal of Boxer.

The veteran Shaw actress Sharry Flett is simply wonderful in The Little Foxes as the gentle, abused, alcoholic, but still hopeful Birdie Hubbard (Oscar’s wife). She inspires both our pity and our affection, and the scenes in which she is disrespected or worse are exquisitely rendered. The Shaw’s production is worth seeing for her performance alone. Also highly satisfactory is Lisa Codrington in the meaningful and thematically important role of Addie.

For more about the storyline of The Little Foxes, see this post. For comment on the political implications of The Little Foxes, see this post.

The Shaw Festival’s production of Terence Rattigan’s outstanding 1943 play After the Dance is reviewed in this post.

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