‘The Little Foxes’ turns tale of a family business into parable of family of man

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A show more lip-smackingly delicious than biscuits and grits that comes smothered with a heaping side of evil.

That just might be the best way to describe the Goodman Theatre revival of “The Little Foxes,” Lillian Hellman’s quasi-autobiographical family saga that takes an American Gothic view of the dirty underbelly of capitalism (remember, the play debuted in 1939, at the tail end of the Great Depression), considers the toxic unfinished business of the Civil War, and serves up a heaping plate of greed, betrayal, corruption, sexism and racism that is countered only by a last gasp of moral accountability.

Add to this poisonous repast a uniformly bristling cast under the formidable, speed-of-light direction of Henry Wishcamper, who has his actors thoroughly chewing on Hellman’s script and spitting it out to perfection. Subtle it is not. But it is absolutely delicious.

‘THE LITTLE FOXES’ Highly recommended When: Through June 7 Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $25 – $81 Info: (312) 443-3800; www.Goodman Theatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions

In thissmall town in Alabama in 1900, there is only grandeur and affluence in view as Hellman’s play unfolds in the vast southern Victorian home occupied by the beautiful and manipulative Regina Hubbard Giddens (Shannon Cochran, stunning in Jenny Mannis’ splendid costumes), her husband Horace (John Judd) and their 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Rae Gray). (Designer Todd Rosenthal’s interior is a lavish Victorian American wonder, from its grand, dark wood staircase and vintage wallpaper, to its lamps and draperies.)

Regina has two brothers: the shrewd, dapper, unmarried Benjamin (Larry Yando), and the low-life wife-beater Oscar (Steve Pickering), who years before married Birdie (Mary Beth Fisher), an artistic, kind-hearted soul who had inherited her family’s plantation and its flourishing cotton fields. The Hubbards’ father willed the family fortune to his sons, leaving Regina, an ambitious, status-driven woman, to depend on her husband, a flawed but decent man with his own ability to get things done, even though he now suffers from serious heart disease, and the couple’s marriage has long since degenerated into a domestic civil war.

Shannon Cochran (from left), Steve Pickering and Larry Yando in “The Little Foxes.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Shannon Cochran (from left), Steve Pickering and Larry Yando in “The Little Foxes.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Enter William Marshall (Michael Canavan), the businessman from Chicago with whom the Hubbard brothers hope to forge a deal and build a cotton mill. Marshall wants to manufacture textiles in the South, where there are no unions and a cheap labor force. But Oscar and Benjamin need an additional $75,000 to seal the contract, and Horace is resistant. Desperate to keep the business “in the family,” Oscar learns from Leo (Dan Waller), his equally craven, ne’er-do-well banker son, that he has access to Horace’s bonds, and a plan is set in motion. (Earlier, there is even a plan to sacrifice Alexandra by having her marry Leo, but this horror, at least, will not be realized.)

Hellman’s loathing for the newly rich mercantile class (as opposed to what she views as the more “genteel” plantation owners) is palpable. So is her sense of how women were continually thwarted by a lack of financial independence, and either driven to bitterness and calculation (like Regina) or to drink (like Birdie). And while the Hubbards frequently use the n-word, Hellman’s portrayal of the Giddens’ two African-American servants — Addie (Cherene Snow), something of a surrogate mother to Alexandra, and Cal (Dexter Zollicoffer), the sardonic butler — is admiring.

Rae Gray (from left), John Judd and Cherene Snow in the Goodman Theatre production of “The Little Foxes.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Rae Gray (from left), John Judd and Cherene Snow in the Goodman Theatre production of “The Little Foxes.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Hellman, prophetic in her own way, saves her greatest revulsion for those who “eat the earth” for personal profit, oblivious to the destruction and pain they wreak in the process. And [spoiler alert here] she punishes Regina in the most brilliant way, while liberating her daughter — a young woman who may just be able to escape the fates of both her beloved aunt and her mother.

Tragic in countless ways, the whole thing is, as noted, absolutely delicious.

NOTE: A special reading of Hellman’s 1946 play “Another Part of the Forest,” a “prequel” to “The Little Foxes” (about the rise of the Hubbards) will be presented at 2 p.m. May 16 at the Goodman. Tickets are free, but call for reservations.

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