BOSTON – Lillian Hellman wrote with great conviction against greed and materialism – most notably in her superb play “The Little Foxes.” Sadly, the Jewish New Orleans native needed only to look at her family tree to find inspiration for her subject. Isaac Marx, her great-grandfather, was a peddler successful enough to put up a large brick store in the heart of town, but family squabbles continued for generations afterwards. Hellman turned these family dramas into her 1939 play. Now, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston presents a riveting 80th anniversary revival of the drama – with telling insights about prejudice, women’s rights, marital conflicts, and the dark side of capitalism.
Some of these menacing challenges – particularly relationship issues and human greed – hark back to the biblical “Song of Songs” (“Shir ha-Shirim), from which the play derives its title. In the ancient song, an Israelite woman wishes to catch the foxes that are spoiling her village’s vines. These foxes serve as metaphors for everything that can poison personal relationships.
The play takes place in an Alabama town in 1900, where those “little foxes” are everywhere: in the sibling rivalries between Regina Giddens and her brothers Benjamin and Oscar Hubbard; the marital troubles between Regina and her husband Horace Giddens; and the conflicts between Oscar Hubbard and his wife Birdie. Benjamin and Oscar are virulent racists who repeatedly invoke the N-word. The greedy brothers excitedly await the machinery will soon arrive at the family’s Alabama cotton fields.
With the arrival of Horace, who has been receiving treatment for his weak heart at Johns Hopkins, the three siblings’ avaricious plans are called into question. Horace clashes with his siblings one moment and his scheming wife the next, and through these fights, Hellman asks important questions about everything from materialism to fascism.
For Hellman fans, Lyric Stage’s sensitive revival of “The Little Foxes” is reason to celebrate. It is a worthy addition to Scott Edmiston’s fine track record as a frequent Lyric Stage guest director for classic plays like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Anna Christie.” Anne Gottlieb’s complex portrayal of Regina – by turns charming, regal, insidious, and ferocious – is a revelation. Her scenes with Craig Mathers – arrestingly vulnerable as Horace – have the perfect combination of pathos and push-pull tension. Will McGarrahan catches the petty cruelty of Oscar’s relationship to his wife, while Amelia Broome is able to communicate the tenderness of Birdie’s touching relationship with the Giddens’ kind daughter Alexandra, who is played with remarkable candor by Rosa Procaccino. Remo Airaldi catches Benjamin’s alternating serenity and deceptiveness. Cheryl D. Singleton is a standout as supportive maid Addie. Also impressive were Janie E. Howland’s elegantly expansive set, Gail Astrid Buckley’s well-chosen period outfits, and lighting director Karen Perlow’s evocative use of spotlight.
The biblical little foxes may threaten to spoil Solomon’s vines, but Hellman’s enduringly prescient play proves a garden well-cultivated with wisdom about women, family life and human values.
“The Little Foxes,” Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through March 17. 617-585-5678 or