After all these years, Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes holds up as a theater piece

Written in 1939, Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes is showing its age — both in the dated characterizations and the high-pitched, melodramatic tone. This is a serious melodrama, though, exploring the shifting of an era as, thanks to industrialization, the old order in the American South gives way to the new. While one character yearns, in a very Chekhovian way, to move to the city — in this case, Chicago — another reminisces helplessly about a gentler, more civilized past.

Foxes features a sister and two brothers — all of them alike in duplicity and greed, with very little ambiguity or complexity. These are ugly, vulpine creatures, determined to seize any opportunity to acquire wealth, regardless of whom they must trample underfoot to get it. The fanged Regina is at the center of the action. Her brothers are Oscar, whose sarcasm and violence have driven his fragile wife, Birdie, to drink, and Ben, a conniving, outwardly genial, old-school fixer. Regina plots with and against her brothers; she's willing to sacrifice her seventeen-year-old daughter, Alexandra, to Oscar's nasty, chip-off-the-old-blockish son; and behaves even more heinously toward her husband, Horace. There's not much standing in the way of these schemers: only Horace, who suffers from heart problems; helpless Birdie; Alexandra, who begins to realize that her life will entirely duplicate Birdie's unless she can find a way to change it; and the family servants, Addie and Cal, empathetic but powerless presences who are treated with racist contempt by Regina and her brothers.

Despite its two-dimensionality, The Little Foxes holds up fairly well as a theater piece. The action is absorbing, the arguments often exhilarating, the action cleverly and speedily plotted. And the politics still speak to us loud and clear. Hellman was a rebel and a fighter for social justice, and when Addie says, "There are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat," we can think of dozens of contemporary examples, from the corporations busily sending our jobs overseas and destroying the lives of American workers to those blindly laying waste to the environment.

In keeping with the play's over-the-top tone, director Ed Baierlein has encouraged a stagey, mannered performance style in his actors. As Regina, Gina Wencel is so witchlike in her movements, her baleful stares and the strident tone of her voice, that a couple of audience members actually booed softly when she made her curtain call. Marc K. Moran deploys an insinuating, lead-with-the-shoulders walk as Oscar, and succeeds in being unutterably loathsome in every word and gesture; loathsome, too, is Patrick Mann as his son, Leo. Jennie MacDonald gives Birdie the kind of stylized, fluttery, slightly singsong, birdlike performance you see in a lot of Tennessee Williams productions. Heather Taylor's Alexandra injects a much-needed note of freshness and honesty into this hothouse environment, as the character slowly figures out who she is and just what's at stake for her. And Ed Baierlein plays Ben with an understated naturalism that grounds the entire production; this is a silver-haired southern gentleman who'd stick a shiv between your ribs if ever your attention were diverted and it happened to be of benefit to him. Half the time, you almost admire him for his cunning and unshakable self-possession — he's the only one present possessed of the slightest finesse — and when he and Regina face off in their ultimate struggle for power and money, it's the tense, high point of the evening.