Since its beginnings as a small storefront operation nearly 17 years ago, Palm Beach Dramaworks has evolved enormously, becoming one of South Florida’s most significant, stable and ambitious companies.
In hewing to its vision of presenting drama that “engages and entertains audiences with provocative and timeless productions that personally impact each individual,” the not-for-profit company has presented all kinds of plays (and the occasional musical), from world-theater classics to new work.
Still, there’s a particular kind of play that Palm Beach Dramaworks does as well as — or better than — any other theater in the region: the great American play, lavishly produced.
Dramaworks has just opened its 2017-18 season with Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” a 1939 classic set in small-town Alabama circa 1900. The playwright’s remarkable study of unrepentant greed has been on Broadway five times (the most recent revival closed in July), and screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor notably made her stage debut in the 1981 revival, which began its journey to Broadway at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse.
The rapacious Hubbard family — brothers Ben and Oscar and their formidable sister, Regina Hubbard Giddens — make the more overt schemers on TV shows such as “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones” seem clumsy. Their genteel manners and Old South customs don’t mask the fact that the Hubbard siblings are ruthless exemplars of self-interest, people perfectly comfortable with pillaging their town, exploiting their fellow citizens and destroying one another.
As Regina’s longtime servant Addie observes, “there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it. … Then, there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.”
The Hubbards do not stand around. Hellman’s intricate plot turns on an opportunity and each sibling’s plans to maximize his or her personal windfall.
Ben (Dennis Creaghan) has been negotiating with Chicago industrialist William Marshall (Frank Converse) to build a cotton mill in their small town, promising rock-bottom wages and no labor trouble. Oscar (James Andreassi) acquired the cotton fields and the once-grand plantation house Lionnet by marrying the property’s heiress, Birdie (Denise Cormier), and transforming her beautiful life into an abuse-filled nightmare. Regina (Kathy McCafferty) is married to the town banker, Horace Giddens (Rob Donohoe), who has been in Baltimore for five months as the doctors at Johns Hopkins attend to his bad ticker.
Marshall will put up $400,000, but in order to close the deal, each sibling has to come up with $75,000 on a tight timeline. Regina, no slouch when it comes to tough negotiation, demands a larger share of the profits (which Ben cavalierly awards her from Oscar’s share), then dispatches her lovely 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Caitlin Cohn), to bring her daddy — and access to his money — home.
The plot thickens considerably once the clearly dying Horace realizes what his Machiavellian wife and her brothers are up to with the help of Oscar and Birdie’s feckless son, Leo (Taylor Anthony Miller), who works at the bank. Horace, Alexandra and Birdie, along with the Giddens’ longtime servants, Addie (Avery Sommers) and Cal (Patric Robinson), are then caught up in a deadly, life-altering tragedy.
Staged with nuanced finesse by J. Barry Lewis, Dramaworks’ “The Little Foxes” is delivered by artists at the top of their game. On the design side, Michael Amico provides a grandly elegant Giddens abode with a sweeping staircase integral to Hellman’s plot. Lighting designer Paul Black underscores the time of day and the mood of a scene, and sound designer Brad Pawlak supplies the traveling clip-clop of horses’ hooves, soul-comforting piano music and the low rumble of dinner table conversation calculated to charm.
Costume designer Brian O’Keefe has done elegant, striking work that speaks to the family’s wealth and status. His first-act dinner party designs make for a visual feast, with the men in formal attire, the women in intricate gowns and the servants in crisp uniforms. O’Keefe’s gown for Regina, in particular, is a character-revealing thing of beauty, as the slender, red-haired McCafferty becomes a vixen in deep burgundy velvet.
As Regina, McCafferty combines manipulative charm, bite and a relentless will into a toxic brew. Cormier’s Birdie is her opposite, a goodhearted and garrulous woman who finds solace in her niece, her memories and pain-numbing alcohol. Cohn’s Alexandra is believably childlike, loving and, finally, the equal of her mother in terms of will.
Donohoe’s Horace has a dying man’s pallor and the mental acuity to outfox his ravenous brothers-in-law and stone-cold wife. Creaghan’s Ben is a model of casual cruelty, while Andreassi’s Oscar mostly masks his fury. Miller’s dim-bulb Leo has no chance at standing up against the coercion of his father and uncle. As a rich man who wants to get richer, Converse’s Marshall represents wealth to the Hubbard brothers and deliverance to Regina, who is chafing to get out of the South. Sommers’ Addie and Robinson’s Cal are observant and opinionated, wise to the Hubbard family’s shenanigans but powerless to intervene.
Great classic plays remain relevant over decades, centuries, millennia because, as much as times change, human beings do not. History seems to circle back around to make such works seem freshly insightful. And at this moment, in the 21st century in a roiling United States, Dramaworks’ fine production of “The Little Foxes” is chillingly resonant.
“The Little Foxes” runs through Nov. 12 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday, and 7 p.m. some Sundays; Oct. 28 evening performance at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $75 ($15 for students, Pay Your Age tickets for theatergoers 18 to 40). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.