Sunday, September 23, 2012

Theatre AUM: "The Little Foxes"

Director Mike Winkelman has mounted a solid production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939) at Theatre AUM, thanks in part to Michael Krek's evocative minimalist set, Val Winkelman's stunning period costumes, and strong performances by actors in its key roles. -- Certainly a scathing commentary on American capitalism in 1939, Winkelman's interpretation [often through actors directly addressing the audience & making them complicit participants] resonates with today's obsessions with instant gratification, greed, and venture capitalism.

Set in a small unnamed Southern town in 1900, Hellman's three-act play recounts the story of the Hubbard siblings -- Oscar [Frank Thomas], Ben [David Wilson], and Regina [Maddie Bogacz] -- as they attempt to become instant millionaires by merging their cotton business with Chicago tycoon William Marshall's [Zack Travis]. While each of them must put up equal shares of $75,000, Regina's sickly husband Horace Giddens [Michael Krek] refuses to join in their scheme on his return from a long hospital stay in Baltimore.

Mr. Krek has a keen eye for scenic design, evidenced recently in his set for AUM's Proof where he compressed the space and capitalized on that play's intimacy; for The Little Foxes, his set makes AUM's lab theatre seem larger than  it is -- by putting the living room on a diagonal, using white frames for its high windows & archways against black curtains, and dressing the stage with a relatively few judiciously placed pieces of period furniture, the space appears large enough to replicate a Georgian or Victorian mansion while giving actors plenty of room to move.

Ms. Winkelman's attention to period detail in her character driven costumes once again articulates her understanding of integrating them with the needs of the play and providing actors with helpful tools with which to assume and develop their roles. Fabrics, color pallet, and cut all support the play's intentions. Like Florenz Ziegfeld who dressed even his chorus-girls from the skin out, Ms. Winkelman appreciates how well clothes do make the man or woman believable on stage.

Peopled by veteran and relatively inexperienced actors still learning their craft, there are a number of stand-out performances here, despite articulation and vocal energy issues that blur some important information, or heightened emotional moments and audience responses that covered lines as well.

Mr. Thomas's gruff stooped-over depiction of Oscar and his frustration at being dominated by his other siblings is palpable. Nicole Holt's nervous mannerisms in playing Oscar's closet-alcoholic wife Birdie, the most genteel member of this clan and an outsider coming from the Southern aristocracy that the others aspire to, and who realizes too late that her family's plantation was the only reason Oscar married her, make her Hellman's most sympathetic character.

Mr. Wilson portrays Ben as a smooth-talking bachelor with nothing to lose, and yet when thwarted he is the most ruthless of the family, going so far as to approve of a marriage between Oscar's weak playboy son Leo [Jackson Wheeles] and Regina's naive daughter Alexandra [Tina Neese].

Ms. Bogacz's acting debut in the pivotal role of Regina [originated by Tallulah Bankhead, and later by a catalogue of famous actresses] is impressive. There is no doubt that her Regina knows how to manipulate others by coquetry or sly allusions, and knows how to put up a good front by using Southern female charm or feigned ignorance to her advantage in getting her own way. Though Ms. Bogacz occasionally relaxes her control, her Regina is a match for almost all the men in this man's world of 1900. Her single-mindedness in leaving home and marriage for the perceived social whirl of Chicago and Europe to be provided by a successful business venture blinds her to how self-destructive she truly is until Horace intervenes.

In Mr. Krek's Horace, Regina has met her match. Though everyone believes Regina can make Horace do whatever she wants, he has nothing to lose as he sees his own death from a heart condition as all too imminent, and will not stand by to see greed destroy everything he holds dear. -- Mr. Krek's performance is the most nuanced on the AUM stage as he depicts Horace's ailments credibly, as well as his concern for his daughter's welfare and for the servants Addie [Allyson Lee] and Cal [JaMarcus White], his compassionate affection for Birdie, his complete disregard of Oscar, Ben, and Leo, and his defiance of Regina.

Theatre AUM continues to expose Montgomery audiences to important plays in world theatre, and this production of The Little Foxes connects to the world today by delivering the goods to which all theatre should aspire.