Review by Kelly Romack MacBlane; photos by North Shore Camera Club.
“How long will you just stand around and watch?”
As a theater major, teacher and director, I have of course encountered the great American playwright Lillian Hellman at various points of time over the last twenty years, but amazingly enough had never actually seen a live production of one of her plays. I was curious what a play written by a woman in the 1930’s would be like today – what story it would tell. And what I saw was a world that didn’t feel that different from our own: where women are often controlled by men, where men are believed over women, where women are shamed into silence. It was both sad and telling that the world Hellman was writing about almost 80 years ago reflected so brightly today. This has been a particularly hard week for many Americans, especially women. Personally, I have had many moments of contemplation and conversation about women, how we are viewed and how we are treated. So it was inevitably through that lens that I sat down to see Citadel Theatre’s production of Little Foxes.
The play itself is set in the early 1900’s and the women of the story- Regina, Birdie, Alexandra and Addie- live a life dictated and manipulated by the men around them- fathers, brothers, husbands, employers- and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Even Regina, masterfully played by Saren Nofs Snyder, who does a horrible thing in the course of the show and should be hated, maintained my sympathy as she explains how her father left all of his wealth to her brothers and she, like many women of the era, found herself in an unhappy marriage made out of necessity rather than love and desire. Her sister-in-law, Birdie, portrayed hauntingly by Alicia Kahn drew even more compassion as the audience watched her being both verbally and physically abused by her unloving husband. “I’ve never had a headache in my life,” she states in a poignant moment with the “outsiders” of the story- the characters not related fully by blood to the Hubbard family- as she talks about how she is forced to hide her true feelings and emotions by her husband who shames her into submission, often telling those around Birdie that she is ill as a way to force her to hide away from the world. And when Birdie reveals she hasn’t had a full day of happiness in over 20 years- since the day she was married- to her young niece, who it seems may inevitably grow up to be just like her, the theater echoed in tears.
Hellman’s words and story are brilliant but director Kristina McCloskey magnificently takes an old story and stages it in such a way that contemporary audiences can relate. The characters McCloskey helped her actors create are completely believable. Both the dynamics between brothers and sister as well as husband and wife are relatable and most of the actors create interesting characters. I cringed at the way Thom Thomas’s Ben Hubbard changes his tone when he goes from talking to the men in the room to the women. Each time Kahn’s Birdie is abused, I felt deflated just as she is, as her body sinks and bends into a submissive wife. Snyder’s portrayal of Regina is powerful and convincing. And some of my favorite moments are from Cal, the servant in Regina’s home, played by William Anthony Sebastian Rose II who plays the character as it was written to show the belief of simplicity in a black servant at the time, yet Rose ends his lines with a look or a tone of modern wit to show the audience there is more to Cal then the Hubbards know. There were a few moments of obvious flubbed or forgotten lines at times in the show. However, I was able to overlook these small mistakes because of the power of the story and characters.
In the program, director McCloskey ends her director’s note with questions. The two that stayed with me were “When the revolution comes, will you think of yourself first?” and “How long will you just stand around and watch?” Lillian Hellman was blacklisted in the 50’s after refusing to name names in front of HUAC as they tried to expose Communists in the United States. It was clear Hellman was a woman of some conscience who was willing to take a stand. During the play, Addie, the maid played by Terrie Lynne Hudson, says to the young Alexandra played by Anna Civik, “There are those who eat the Earth…and other people who stand around and watch them eat.” Alexandra, like me, ponders these words and, in a speech that reminded me of other works of art written by communist-leaning writers, Alexandra expresses that maybe she will be someone who won’t stand around and watch. There is hope that she can bring a change. Hope that we can bring change.
Little Foxes is now playing at the Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, through October 28. Performance times vary; check the website at Citadel Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.