Another Part of the Forest
nytheatre.com review by Susan Jonas
June 7, 2010
Say "Regina" to any theatre lover, and what springs to mind is not an Elizabeth, but, as Tallulah Bankhead famously described, that "rapacious bitch...[etched] in acid by Miss Hellman" in her best-known play, The Little Foxes. The rarely produced prequel, Another Part of the Forest, though produced in 1946, seven years after the premiere of The Little Foxes, was set 20 years earlier in 1880, with the Civil War in recent memory. In this second play (Hellman apparently intended a trilogy), Regina Hubbard is only 20, but she may already be considered too old and "despoiled" to be marriageable.
So powerful is the memory of The Little Foxes, Regina, and the actresses who have played her in theatre, film and Marc Blitzstein's opera, that it is difficult to watch Another Part of the Forest without mentally leaping ahead to the earlier play, and the future of the well-known characters. The Peccadillo production makes clear that it is certainly worthwhile to try. The ambitious production is largely successful, if not flawless, and offers a welcome opportunity to delve further into the Hubbard history and into Hellman's mind.
Another Part of the Forest (a stage direction quoted from As You Like It and Titus Andronicus), looks back to the Hubbard home life shared by Regina and her two brothers Ben and Oscar, three rivals competing for the attention and affection of their father, Marcus, and failing that for his money. Marcus is an autodidact and self-made man whose wealth has been achieved through usury and exploitation. His three children fight his domestic tyranny with every resource at their disposal. Regina uses her beauty and femininity to an incestuous degree. Ben, the eldest and smartest—so far—shows the same ruthlessness as his father but greater craft. The younger brother, Oscar, who dabbles with the Ku Klux Klan, wants to elope to New Orleans with his mistress, a prostitute whom he loves "deeply and sincerely," as he is wont to repeat. Regina hopes to escape to Chicago to secretly marry 36-year-old ex-soldier Captain John Bagtry. Bagtry wants to run off to Brazil, supposedly to preserve "a way of life" (i.e., slavery), but more certainly to recapture the thrill of war. Marcus's wife Lavinia, whose grasp on reality may be tenuous, still knows enough to want to flee; she hopes to atone for her sins by going to work as a missionary helping poor black children. Only Ben seems intent on staying. But to what end?
It is no small wonder that this play was written during the height of Hellman's psychoanalysis; it has the inevitability of both Greek tragedy and Freud. Because of its unique mix of melodrama, satire and situational comedy, it's a challenging play to stage. Hellman felt critics took the play at face value, explaining she has intended the excessive depravity as black humor rather than bathos, but it's hard to achieve this theatrically. Under Dan Wackerman's direction, the Peccadillo production manages to alternate deftly between the humor—from barbed wit to farce—and moments of true poignancy. Still, and it may be the fault of the writing, the result feels unsynthesized, not of one world.
The cast boasts some extraordinary performances, particularly the depth and subtlety of Elizabeth Norment as Lavinia. And Kendall Rileigh as Birdie Bagtry personifies that compassion, desperation, determination, bewilderment and pride particular to the Southern aristocracy and reminiscent of Tennessee Williams's heroines. The two women make a tragedy of sensitivity. Ben Curtis is exceptional in the difficult role of Oscar, the romantic but ineffectual clown who is relentlessly ridiculed, the inevitable consequence being that he will become a wife-beating bully. Ryah Nixon is a standout as pugnacious Laurette Sincee, a self-professed and unrepentant whore, and the only person who expresses contempt for Marcus Hubbard to his face. Christopher Kelly is, as Captain John Bagtry, just the kind of Byronic ex-soldier a 20-year-old would fall for, never noticing that what passes for idealism is actually a lack of imagination. As the servants, Coralee and Jacob, Perri Gaffney and Anthony Willis Jr. are dignified and aware, their silent though chorus-like presence emphasizing the Hubbards' barbarity. Still, in this day and age, it is difficult to see African American supernumeraries with no voice. In The Little Foxes, it is the "Negro" Addie who is largely responsible for the moral awakening of Regina's daughter, and she is given the most memorable speech in that play: "...[There] are people who eat the earth and all the people on it...Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it."
Finally there are the Titans—Ben, Regina, and Marcus. Matthew Floyd Miller, Stephanie Wright Thompson, and Sherman Howard (respectively) deliver authoritative and credible performances, but only Howard achieves the requisite size. And all tend towards one note rather than evincing complex nuanced characters. The writing fails the characters insofar as it reasons behavior but offers few opportunities to theatricalize it. Still, more resourceful directing and acting would have discovered more unexpected depth, perhaps showing the deep disappointment Marcus feels in his sons and his profound anxiety about his own virility; the pain under Ben's sarcasm; the vulnerability that Regina's self-interest vanquishes, and that she is not merely amoral but admirably unwilling to become her mother. These are hugely demanding roles, and I have no doubt this cast will grow into them.
Joseph Spirito delivers an impressively substantial set that conjures the appropriated tastefulness in which the Hubbards can never be at home. My quibble with both the set and the lights, designed by Kate Ashton, is their coldness fails to capture the oppressive heat of a Southern summer, and the irritability that engenders. Amy C. Bradshaw's costumes are intentionally vulgar, showing Regina has more ambition than taste, yet they seem too theatrical for the otherwise naturalistic world of the production, or to have been made by a well-known Chicago purveyor.
But these are mostly minor criticisms. This is a generally accomplished production of a significant play, successful in its time and largely forgotten. It's an engaging fast-paced two hours and 40 minutes, and you will not be tempted to leave during the one intermission. Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes are peculiarly American. Both are about money. Just as The Children's Hour seemed to predict McCarthyism, so do these two plays "predict" the rampant capitalism of the 20th century. Now, in the 21st, the consequences of unchecked greed and unscrupulousness could not be more apparent. Thanks again to Peccadillo for rescuing yet another gem from obscurity.