Lyric Stage considers Lillian Hellman’s opus and legacy
The Little Foxes cuts straight into the heart of American morality at a time when the nation is at a turning point. With women striving for recognition, shifting racial politics creating visible friction and powerful businesses taking over smaller ones through unsavory deals, 1900 was a prime year for Lillian Hellman to set her play about a Southern family whose ambitions outweigh their decaying morals.
With Lyric Stage Company getting ready to mount their production of the 1939 three-acter, DigBoston caught up with the women of The Little Foxes, as well as director Scott Edmiston, who believes Hellman is overdue for admission into the pantheon of Great American Playwrights.
“My accepted education growing up was that the three great American playwrights were Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and I never thought to question that,” Edmiston says. “Two years ago, one of my students asked, ‘Why isn’t Lillian Hellman on this list? I think The Little Foxes is as good as those other plays,’ and I was thrilled to consider that.”
Based on the the playwright’s own family, it centers on the corrupt Hubbard family business, owned by the two Hubbard brothers as Regina, their sister, schemes for control from the sidelines. Hellman uses the family drama to comment on the rising threat of fascism, the perils of capitalism and the impotence of the silent bystander.
“Her friends talk about her anger – that she had a kind of angered injustice and was always a bit on the attack about things,” Edmiston says. “There’s a great sense of injustice, whether it’s about fascism, capitalism, racism, sexism… she was picking all of these fights.”
Blacklisted for her leftist sympathies, Hellman made a name for herself onstage and off with her sharp comments and black-and-white ideals. Amelia Broome (Birdie) mentions what Hellman wrote in a letter to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
“Boy, she is unsentimental,” Broome says. “She takes a pretty hard-nosed approach in terms of who these characters are and what they do to get what they want. There’s no fluff with Hellman and she predates these other major American playwrights. I can’t imagine that Tennessee Williams wouldn’t have seen this play in its day and felt an internal permission to tell his own stories.”
The actors often mention that the specificity with which Hellman imbues her characters is not something they often find in women’s roles. Rosa Procaccino (Alexandra) says they are often one-dimensional and static, an issue she does not find in the women of The Little Foxes.
“She really understands the ways in which women don’t neatly fill certain molds,” Procaccino says. “Sometimes, in plays written by men, women are boxed in. If they’re a ballbreaker, they’re ballbreakers the whole time and that’s how they’re written.”
Hubbard sister Regina, who must maneuver through a world hostile to ambitious women to get what she wants, is a fascinating figure – though not one always admired.
“Regina has been so demonized by white, straight, male critics who call her villainous and rapacious and a bitch,” Edmiston says. “Her brothers, who do the same exact things, are thought of as juicy characters.”
Speaking about the roles the four women characters perform – ruthless schemer, battered alcoholic, innocent ingenue and domestic worker – Anne Gottlieb (Regina) sees Hellman as pushing against gender norms.
“In this particular time, there were no options for women,” Gottlieb says. “You can feel Lillian Hellman, with each of these women, pressing up against these limitations. You can feel that she’s conscious of it as a writer, and that she’s writing it for the actors playing these roles.”
Cheryl D. Singleton (Addie) adds that a fourth option, prostitution, is also mentioned as an alternative. Singleton claims her character, the family maid and nanny, is saved from being yet another stereotype by deft, human writing.
“For me, it’s been a question of her status – not just in this family but in the wider community,” Singleton says. “Hellman takes those things into consideration and it’s helped make her more than a stock character. In other hands, these could all be stock characters, but Scott is not allowing that, and neither are we.”
THE LITTLE FOXES. THROUGH 3.17 AT THE LYRIC STAGE. 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM