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Lifestyles of the rich and venal are broadcast in The Little Foxes.


It's a shame that our language has not kept up with the predations of the capitalist barbarians who control our economy. Years ago, these vipers were called "robber barons," and though they frequently used unfair business practices to gain their fortunes, they also funded public museums, libraries, and hospitals. The modern versions, lacking a suitably obnoxious moniker, just find ways to profit from tragedies (Iraq, Katrina -- you name it) while building garish mansions in tribute to themselves.

Playwright Lillian Hellman took a look at the mentality of robber barons as exemplified by the scary Hubbard family in her drama The Little Foxes. Anchored by three of the most distasteful people that ever sucked air onstage -- grasping brothers Ben and Oscar, and Cruella-like sister Regina -- this story plays out in the American South circa 1900. But close your eyes and imagine them transplanted to gleaming skyscrapers today, and the personalities seem just as credible and equally disgusting.

This production is mounted by the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts program, and while it has some rocky moments, it effectively delivers Hellman's vision of untrammeled greed and venality. Based in part on the playwright's early years with her family, which split time between New York and New Orleans, Foxes focuses on the two brothers who have a scheme to close a deal on a mill that will apparently make them gazillions. But it turns out they need Regina's loot to make it happen, and she's got it, since she's married to wealthy old fart Horace.

Director Ron Wilson does a fine job of pacing the family feud that ensues, as Oscar's creepy son Leo pilfers some loot from Horace's safe deposit box. Meanwhile, the good folks, including Regina's caring daughter Alexandra and Oscar's flighty wife Birdie, try to evade the whirling malevolence all around them.

In the to-die-for role of bitchy Regina, Amanda Duffy is thoroughly hateful without becoming a caricature, committing murders both symbolic and actual with arrogant ease. And Dan Hammond matches her self-possession, quietly but firmly exerting his smooth control as the elder brother Ben. Also excellent is Melynee Saunders Warren, who crafts a believable Birdie, abused by her husband and life in general. (She sadly observes during an elderberry wine funk: "I have never had one whole day of happiness.")

Other members of the cast exhibit strange southern accents and make a variety of assorted missteps. Nathan Gurr, sounding like he's from southern Pennsylvania rather than Dixie, over-torques his approach to Oscar, snarling and glaring cartoonishly. And Deric McNish, while suitably feral in appearance, never finds the core of this two-footed weasel Leo.

Even with its acting wrinkles and a couple loosely attached mustaches, this production generally does justice to the playwright's sharp dialogue. And when conniving Ben purrs, "The world is open for people like us," the contemporary meaning is on point, and quite chilling.

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