What sacrifices would you make to maintain an upper hand? To get what you want? To assert your financial, and familial, dominance? Lauded playwright Lillian Hellman explored the extremes of ambition and the thirst for fortune in her 1939 family drama The Little Foxes, currently onstage at Palm Beach Dramaworks through November 12.
Set in 1900 Alabama, Foxes focuses on the Hubbard family, an ambitious lot motivated by greed and in desperate need of a moral compass. Brothers Benjamin and Oscar have partnered with a Chicago businessman to construct a cotton mill near the fields Oscar controls following his marriage to Birdie, a kindhearted southern aristocrat. Their sister, Regina, wants in on the deal, too, but cannot secure the funds until her husband, Horace, returns from a months-long hospital stay. Regina is on a tight timeline, so she sends her sweet daughter, Alexandra, to fetch her father. His return does not go according to Regina’s plans, leading to even more discontent within the family.
This play is dense, there’s no getting around it. It’s packed with characters, opposing motives, layered themes, and parallels to contemporary life. But Palm Beach Dramaworks and director J. Barry Lewis excel at making light work of heavy material.
At least a portion of this success is due to extremely smart production design that transports audiences to turn-of-the-century grandeur. Michael Amico’s towering set evokes quintessential images of wealth, full of well-kept furniture in inviting fabrics and apropos antiques that appear cutting edge in this context. Brian O’Keefe’s luxurious costumes also add to the rich air that permeates Foxes. Women don gowns made of velvet and silk. Men dress in tails and white ties suitable for a first-class dinner on the Titanic. It’s all wonderfully dramatic, and oh so beautiful to behold.
The cast is also a huge asset to this production. Despite portraying family members, each actor imbues his or her character with unique quirks that immediately differentiate them within the group. Take Regina, for example. Kathy McCafferty steals scenes as the fiery redhead who will stop at nothing to get her dues. When Birdie notes that “ladies will bow to your manners and gentlemen to your looks” early in Act I, the audience gets a glimpse into Regina’s potential for power within the late-Victorian social milieu. In this role, McCafferty is at once charming and conniving, selfish and sly, despicable and utterly unforgettable.
Other standouts include Taylor Anthony Miller, who boasts a striking resemblance to Donald Trump Jr. in both appearance and demeanor as Oscar’s awkward son, Leo; South Florida stage favorite Avery Sommers as Addie, the omnipresent maid with a heart of gold; and powerhouse actor Rob Donohoe, who brings a palpable likability and compassion to the ailing Horace.
However, the part with the biggest build and payoff goes to Caitlin Cohn. As 17-year-old Alexandra, Cohn crafts a crescendo of emotions, opening a window into the character’s evolution from a demure girl to a defiant woman who isn’t afraid to speak up for what she believes in. Cohn is clearly a talented young actress who understands how to portray underlying changes without going overboard. Together with McCafferty’s Regina, Cohn’s Alexandra is gifted with the final moments of the show and rises to the occasion with aplomb.