As The Little Foxes begins, great works are being set in motion within the Giddens House. Up 'til now brothers Oscar and Ben Hubbard stuck to the smaller work of enriching themselves by nickel-and-diming poor black people in their store, but now they're moving on up. They've enlisted their sister Regina to charm the business magnate Marshall over a traditional Southern dinner, in hopes of enlisting the Northerner in their dream of building their own cotton mill. Oscar has the cotton field (through marriage) and Ben has the cut-throat business sense; with their own mill it's just a matter of time 'til they leave "comfortably rich" behind and become "filthy, stinking rich."
Lillian Hellman's drama debuted in 1939, but in the intervening years it's only become more prescient. The production currently being mounted by St. Louis Actors' Studio and director John Contini is a fascinating story beautifully told by a large and talented cast — and one that's depressing as hell. The robber barons of the past were ambitious mercenaries who didn't care who they crushed to earn another fistful of dollars, and they're alive and thriving in the modern world. But nobody ever talks about the depredations of the robber baronesses. Charming, clever Regina Giddens is here to demonstrate that men are pikers compared to her callous appetite for more.
Ben and Oscar (Chuck Brinkley and Bob Gerchen) graciously offer Regina (Kari Ely) a piece of the Marshall deal, but only if she can come up with $75,000 buy-in. They both know she has no money of her own; their father left his fortune only to his sons. Regina's cut must come from her banker husband Horace (William Roth), and he's been recuperating from ill health in Baltimore for five months. He hasn't responded to Regina's requests.
This need for more — more of Horace's money and more of the luxuries Regina dreams of acquiring once the mill is up and running — spurs on Regina, and she in turn drives the action around her. Make no mistake, all three Hubbard siblings are a voracious bunch, sowing destruction in their wake, but Regina is a real piece of work.
It's a plum part for an actress, and Kari Ely makes a meal of it. Ely wears a persistent smile as she flirts with Marshall, spars with her brothers and manipulates her daughter Alexandra (Bridgette Bassa) into going up north to bring home Horace. Ely commands every scene through force of will and that dancing smile. And when it disappears, watch out. Her hard eyes size up an obstacle, and you can almost see the machinery in her head working out whether it will be quicker to circumvent someone or destroy them.
The Little Foxes requires two intermissions, but it never feels over-long thanks to Hellman's use of the secondary and tertiary characters, which gives everyone in the cast a story. Oscar's sour disposition and hatred for his wife Birdie (Laurie McConnell) informs the quiet joy she displays when spending time with the lively Alexandra. Regina's servants Addie and Cal (Wendy Greenwood and Dennis Jethro II, both excellent) are mere statues in her presence, but come alive in the presence of Horace and Alexandra's decency and kindness. Oscar and Birdie's son Leo (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) is a block of wood with a face drawn on, and his staggering inability to follow a conversation or a plan is the source of the play's few laughs.
And then there's Horace. When he returns, theater buffs get to watch Ely and Roth spar with the same exquisite timing and skill they exhibited in the company's previous production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Horace is a dying man, and he has no desire for more of anything except quiet rest. Still, he has enough energy to plot out a perfect parry that will stymie Regina while still allowing Ben and Oscar to get richer.
But not even his long years of fighting his wife allow him to anticipate her riposte. Regina runs the table on Horace and outfoxes Ben and Oscar in the process. She has her own blindspot, though. If you devour everything in sight, what's left for anyone else to live on? Regina learns too late that nobody can survive on nothing, and not even everything you ever wanted can keep you company when you're alone.