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Goodman Theatre's The Little Foxes gives us a woman to rival Lady Macbeth

Lillian Hellman's prescient midcentury melodrama is a portrait of rapacity.

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I asked, and the answer is no: Shannon Cochran does not wear kothornoi in the extraordinary revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes running now at Goodman Theatre. She sure looks as if she does, though. Kothornoi are the platform sandals ancient Greek actors wore (Aeschylus's idea, allegedly) to look taller and more imposing onstage. Cochran enjoys a clear height advantage over most if not all of her fellow cast members. More to the point, she's imposing as hell.

And that's exactly as it should be, inasmuch as her character, Regina Giddens, ranks right up there with Lady Macbeth for naked ambition and epic lack of ruth. In fact, Regina arguably surpasses the bloody-minded Scottish queen—no unwashable hands, mad strolls, or suicides for her. Regina keeps her head when all about are losing theirs and correctly blaming it on her, a forthright if not quite happy harridan to the end.

She comes by it honestly. Regina is the sister of Ben and Oscar Hubbard, merchants and descendants of merchants, whose carpetbagging grandfather found opportunities in trade after the Civil War destroyed the plantation system in the American south. As merrily exploitative and rapacious as he was innovative and hardworking (he might be called a "disrupter" now), the old man made a fortune while the traumatized aristocracy sat dazed and sank deeper into debt­—"because," as Ben explains with infinite satisfaction, "the southern aristocrat can adapt himself to nothing. Too high-toned to try."

Now, in 1900, the brothers have long since taken over the running of Hubbard Sons, Merchandise—and a few other things as well, such as southern belle Birdie, whose dowry included a distinguished lineage and plenty of cotton-growing acreage when baby brother Oscar married her 20 years back.

Regina, for her part, married a banker named Horace Giddens. Decent, loving, delicate Horace had smarts enough to buy Union Pacific when it was cheap, growing wealthy, if not quite rich, on the dividends. Yet he hasn't the fire to push for more. Naturally, Regina loathes him. No less acquisitive than her brothers and more than their equal in connivance, Regina longs to do what the playwright who created her actually did: stretch her muscles in a man's world.

Regina thinks she sees her chance too. Tired of sending raw cotton to northern textile mills, where other businessmen turn it into dry goods and reap big-money profits, Ben and Oscar plan to open a mill of their own in the low-wage, union-free south. They've found a Chicago tycoon to go partners with, but they've also got to put up $225,000 of their own. Regina can have her third of the action for $75,000. Only Horace is recalcitrant, on more or less the same grounds that motivated Kay Corleone to get an abortion in The Godfather, Part II—that "this must all end."

The Little Foxes is a wild piece of work: a good old-fashioned melodrama with a strong political edge, done up in serpent's-tooth dialogue delivered by characters worthy of Hellman's husband, Dashiell Hammett. Writing during the late 1930s, in the full flower of sympathies that would later get her blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hellman created an entertainment that also manages to indict unchecked capital and speak out for women, workers, and the oppressed. In one speech that resonates chillingly down to the present moment, Ben offers a paean to would-be robber barons like himself. "The century's turning," he tells Regina, "the world is open. Open for people like you and me. . . . There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in room like this throughout the country. All their names aren't Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country some day."

Interestingly, speaking of chilling resonances, the issue on which Hellman goes weak is race. Her heart's in the right place: the Giddenses' servants, Addie and Cal, are vivid, sympathetic characters who don't mind speaking up within—and at times beyond—the limits of period decorum. But they never rise above the status of loyal retainers; they're defined by their connection to their white folks. It takes a small, smart, crucial tweak by director Henry Wishcamper—achieved entirely through blocking at the very end of the play—to open up another set of possibilities.

But then Wishcamper's staging is full of such gestures, from hilarious or meaningful syncopations of speech to Cochran's tendency to give Steve Pickering's Oscar the occasional big-sisterly slap on the head. Dan Waller is ever so creepy as Leo Hubbard, slimy spawn of Oscar and Birdie. John Judd makes an appropriately noble ruin of Horace. Cherene Snow's Addie is, compellingly, the mother you always wanted but never got. Larry Yando is a great, nasty, delightful hoot as affable, dangerous Ben. And Cochran gives a towering performance sans kothornoi, channeling so many of the theater's thwarted women while adding a power—however brutal and distorted—that few of them are permitted.  v

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