The Little Foxes
Florida Repertory Theatre,
2267 First St., Fort Myers, Fla.
closes Jan. 26
Fort Myers, Fla.
How good is "The Little Foxes"? It depends on what you're comparing it with—and how well it's done. Lillian Hellman's 1939 play about a greedy small-town merchant family is neither subtle nor poetic, and if it's performed in the manner of a hiss-the-villain melodrama, you'll go home feeling as though you'd just spent 2½ hours in a dentist's chair. But Ms. Hellman knew how to nail a plot together so tightly that the seams don't show, as well as how to ring down a curtain so hard that the audience gasps. Of such talents are sure-fire plays made. Do "The Little Foxes" right and it can't miss. The Florida Repertory Theatre is doing it very, very right, and the results are superlative.
You've probably seen "Foxes" at least once, either onstage or in William Wyler's 1941 film version, so I'll limit myself to saying that Regina Giddens (played here by Sara Morsey) is one of the nastiest pieces of work in the history of American theater, a woman so determined to best her brothers (Mark Chambers and Peter Thomasson) in a shady business deal that she's more than happy to do it over her husband's dead body. Regina is so despicable, in fact, that the key to making "The Little Foxes" work is to keep her awfulness under wraps for as long as possible. An exaggerated performance will sink the show, but Ms. Morsey is careful to carry herself in the genteel manner of a Southern lady right up to the moment when she unsheathes her razor and starts slashing. You'll definitely believe her when she tells Horace (Craig Bockhorn), her sickly husband, that "I hope you die soon. I'll be waiting for you to die."
Maureen Heffernan, the director, previously worked wonders with Florida Rep's productions of Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" and A.R. Gurney's "Sylvia." Hence it seems safe to say that she deserves much of the credit for steering Ms. Morsey away from the low road of premature overacting to which so many Reginas before her have succumbed. Here as before, Ms. Heffernan makes a point of not getting in between the play and the audience. Unlike the New York Theatre Workshop's horrendous high-concept 2010 revival of "The Little Foxes," in which Ivo van Hove transplanted the action of the play from 1900 to Right This Second in order to underline its continuing relevance, Ms. Heffernan takes it for granted that you're smart enough to figure out that kind of thing all by yourself. Nor does she stoop to exaggeration, not even for a moment: Everybody onstage behaves like a real person, and the plot twists are allowed to happen rather than being self-consciously detonated.
It helps—a lot—that Florida Rep has so fine a group of actors on which to draw. Some of the cast members are part of the company's permanent ensemble, others guests, but all are well matched to their parts, especially Mr. Thomasson, who is satanically charming as Ben, the brother with the brains, and Carrie Lund, who comes within a whisker of stealing the show as Birdie, Regina's pitiful, downtrodden sister-in-law, who drinks to cover up the knowledge that she was married for her money. Ms. Lund snaps hungrily at every crumb of praise that the family flicks to her, knowing that's all she's going to get. The New York Theatre Workshop production, which sported the stalwart likes of Elizabeth Marvel and Cristin Milioti, was acted with a sumptuous skill that helped to paper over Mr. van Hove's directorial malpractice, but Florida Rep has nothing to apologize for: This cast is just as good.
The crudities of "The Little Foxes," in which Ms. Hellman wore her Marxist politics like a bloody blouse, are so obvious that they need not be pointed out anymore. The point is that she embedded them in a plot so deftly wrought that it doesn't matter. Whatever your opinion of capitalism may be, "The Little Foxes" will sweep you along so briskly and self-confidently that only an ideologue would deny its theatrical effectiveness. Of course it's not a masterpiece—it's far too simple-minded to be great—but few American plays written in the first half of the 20th century have proved to be so durable, and Florida Rep's revival gets everything out of "The Little Foxes" that there is to be gotten.—Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, blogs about theater and the other arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appeared January 4, 2013, on page D9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Hunting 'Foxes' In Florida.