Elizabeth Bunch and Gordana Rashovich in The Little Foxes.

Family Feud

The number of world premieres produced by the Denver Center Theatre Company over the past few years makes it increasingly hard to think of the city's flagship theater company as a repertory group dedicated to presenting periodic revivals of classic plays. Earlier this season, more doubt was cast on the company's restorative powers when a pair of revivals (The Show-Off and Much Ado About Nothing) proved more pedestrian than illuminating.

Happily, director Bruce K. Sevy's well-staged version of The Little Foxes, currently playing at the Stage Theatre, demonstrates that the DCTC is more than capable of imbuing an established work with fresh insight.

Several company regulars contribute to Sevy's resonant interpretation of the seminal Lillian Hellman drama about the deadly American sins of pride, greed and corrosive blood ties. To begin with, designer Vicki Smith fashions a turn-of-the-century setting that combines classic architectural lines with Southern-plantation-style excess. Two dark mahogany pillars arch skyward to a pair of ornate wooden screens, one of which flanks the top landing of an enormous Scarlett O'Hara staircase that cascades some twenty planks to the black, lacquered stage floor (Hellman's play debuted on Broadway in 1939, the same year as Gone With the Wind). Several gilt-framed oil portraits hang like vertically arranged corpses from the blood-red rear wall, which is fronted by a translucent scrim that lends the gallery a musty, almost morgue-like atmosphere. Combined with moody lighting and detailed period costumes (credit DCTC veterans Don Darnutzer and Andrew V. Yelusich, respectively), the venue serves as an effective, if overly operatic, backdrop for the venality that passes between two post-Reconstruction clans.


The Little Foxes

Stage Theatre, Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis streets

Through April 21, 303-893-4100

Apart from a slightly forced opening scene, the cast of company members, returnees and newcomers has little trouble delineating the conflicts that bind the Hubbard and Giddens families. Actress Caitlin O'Connell, who began her career at the DCTC in the '80s, delivers a heart-wrenching portrait of Birdie Hubbard, the daughter of a once-prominent family brought to ruin by the scheming Hubbards, one of whom, Oscar, Birdie eventually married. Sporting a countenance that's at once hopeful and anguished, O'Connell shows us a woman who has become a prisoner of the very society that molded her. Her beautiful performance reaches its pinnacle in Act Three, when Birdie speaks of her futile attempts to break free of suffocating tradition. She's nicely complemented by Gordana Rashovich, whose turn as the lone Hubbard daughter, Regina Giddens, shows us that some who marry for money can never get enough of it. (Hellman's famous anti-heroine, who's been played by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Elizabeth Taylor, became the subject of Marc Blitzstein's 1949 opera, Regina.) Like the proverbial spider aware of her web's every intricacy, Rashovich instills the role with a calculating coquettishness that, in a heartbeat, can turn to cold betrayal -- an emotional swing that strikes most chillingly during an Act Three exchange with Regina's daughter, Alexandra (given a decent rendering by Elizabeth Bunch).

The play's contingent of paternal characters is headed up by Daniel Ahearn, who brings an admirable range of emotion to the role of Regina's mate, Horace Giddens, whose unassuming ways purposefully obscure his business acumen. DCTC stalwart John Hutton exudes snakelike charm as Horace's resourceful brother-in-law, Ben Hubbard; Christopher Kelly amuses as Birdie's ambitious son, Leo; and Bill Christ is a towering presence as Birdie's husband (and Ben and Regina's brother), Oscar. His vicious treatment of his wife becomes all the more cruel when he hits her; in a gesture that says everything about the Hubbards, the momentum produced by striking his wife allows him to conveniently -- and nonchalantly -- propel himself out the front door. And Greg Thornton, Sharon Hope and local actor Alphonse Keasley endow their supporting parts with abundant humanity and flair.

Critics have often cited Hellman's stagecraft and insight as being equal to that of Ibsen's and Chekhov's; all three are masters of using suspense, surprise and humor to create fleeting moments that speak volumes. While director Sevy would do well to deepen and broaden the relationships in this production, he nonetheless exploits the rest of Hellman's strengths to considerable effect. That's especially true when Horace gives the Hubbard boys an answer to their entreaties for financial backing and all of the performers instantly react in ways that set in motion the rest of the play's events in motion. For the rest of the two-hour-plus evening, it's a pleasure to watch a repertory company use its diverse talents to harness, and then turn loose, a modern master's magic.


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