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A CurtainUp Review
Another Part of the Forest
By Elyse Sommer
Hellman, intended the story of this super-dysfunctional Southern family that was partially inspired by her own kin to be part of a trilogy "about how the American middle-class got to be the American upper class." That hope never materialized though in 1946 she did revisit the Hubbards with Another Part of the Forest. Instead of moving forward, that play went back twenty years in order to shed some light on how the pattern of foxy cunning and mutual exploitation developed.
This prequel to The Little Foxes had a respectable Broadway run. It won a Tony for its Regina, Patricia Neal. It was also filmed with Frederick March as the Hubbard pater familias, Dan Duryea and Edmond O'Brien as his scheming sons and Ann Blyth as Regina. The film's stellar cast notwithstanding, you'll have a hard time tracking it down as a DVD.
Theater goers' fascination with these memorably unlovable characters has been sustained by numerous revivals of The Little Foxes, (post Bankhead Reginas on Broadway have included Anne Bancroft in 1967, Elizabeth Taylor in 1981, and Stockard Channing in 1997). But productions of Another Part of the Forest are few and far between. Thus the Peccadillo Theater Company's revival is a rare chance to see a drama which, though it may lack the potency of The Little Foxes, is nevertheless a compelling theatrical artefact.
This is not a glossy "for the ages" production but it's competently staged by Peccadillo's artistic director Dan Wackerman. And in these days, when the economy-conscious casting mantra is "less is better," it's a pleasure to see a baker's dozen of thespians on stage even if none set the stage on fire.
Hellman's return to the horrible Hubbards covers just a few days in the family parlor and patio in Bowden, Alabama, but it's long enough to see where the Hubbard siblings acquired their avariciousness and wobbly moral compass. The tree from which these rotten apples fell is Marcus Hubbard (Sherman Howard capturing the man's cruelty but somewhat short on the complexities that set him apart from his family and his Southern neighbors) — a self-made, self-taught man from a hardscrabble background who made his fortune as a war profiteer.
Older brother Ben (an aptly snarky Matthew Floyd Miller) is the family's toughest infighter. But if you're familiar with The Little Foxes, the less savvy younger brother Oscar (Ben Curtis combining the angry young men of the Old South persona with the dumb bumpkins of the hamlets his father fought his way out of) is easily persuaded to become part of their corrupt way of life. Sister Regina (Stephanie Wright Thompson, pretty and bearing a slight resemblance to a young Bette Davis) lets enough of the selfish willfulness that will deepen and harden with time glitter through the Southern belle veneer.
Marcus keeps a tight hold on the purse strings, that his conniving children scheme to untie. He disdains both his sons and adores his pretty, 20year-old daughter with an unhealthy intensity (which director Wackerman does little to camouflage in this production). Though already a seasoned manipulator from years of playing up to her father's weakness for her charms, Regina is still innocent enough to think she can have money and the love of John Bagtry (Christopher Kelly somewhat short of the dash needed to make Regina's risking scandal for love of him convincing). Bagtry is a 36-year-old Confederate Captain. As it turns out he is depressed and still mourning not just for the defeated Confederacy that has left his cotton field owning family impoverished but for the soldier's life which he loves more than Regina.
By the time all the familial infighting ends, the shrewd, ambitious Ben has managed to get the best of his father, as well as his siblings. It takes a lot less time to topple Marcus from his controlling patriarch status than it took the North to defeat the South — but as The Little Foxes proves, both battles have long lasting effects. Whatever better selves might still have emerged had events in this play taken a different turn, the evil Hubbard gene wins — much as the move of families like the Hubbards from Marcus's humble beginnings, to their dishonestly won middle class to upper class status laid the seeds for a corruption of the American dream.
The strongest performance is by Elizabeth Norment as Lavinia, the wife browbeaten by her husband into a daftness that borders on mental instability. She's the only decent Hubbard, her dearest wish being to start a school for poor colored children. While Lavinia fades into a mere mention in The Little Foxes, Birdie Bagtry (Kendall Rilleigh) who appears fairly briefly here, will show up in Foxes as Oscar's wife, another inept but sympathetic character. As in Foxes, this play also depicts the servants (Anthony Lewis Jr's Jacob and Perri Gaffney's Coralee) as more human and honorable than their employers. Ryah Nixon is amusing as Laurette Sincee, the woman with whom Oscar thinks he can make a life away from his family.
Wackerman and his designers have not attempted a lavish mansion set, but divided the stage into a sparsely furnished combination set for the Hubbard parlor and the patio leading to the dining room and upstairs bedrooms. No drop dead Southern splendor, but it's serviceable. Amy C. Bradshow's costumes and Kate Ashton's lighting enhance the production's look and feel.
The conflated first and second acts move along rather slowly — probably more the playwright's than the director's fault. But direction, acting and Hellman's script do spring to life during the final act. That's when all the scheming collides into a finale that sums up the power shift with the simple act of pouring a cup of coffee.
In the best of all possible worlds, a company like Peccadillo would have had the resources to present The Little Foxes and this prequel in repertory. But if it has to be one or the other, I suppose, even though this is the lesser of the two, is a smart move since viewers can always revisit Foxes in its DVD format and watch Bette Davis do a wonderfully, über-nasty Regina.