A few Sundays ago, while we were waiting for a matinee to start, I had the pleasure of listening to the unvarnished commentary of the elderly man on my right as he flipped through the program. He made some remarks about the photos and credits of the cast, and then he reached an ad for the Goodman’s new production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.

“Why are they doing this?” he asked in disgust. “It’s so old.”

The Little Foxes first appeared on Broadway in 1939. The movie version came out in 1941. My neighbor was probably an infant at the time. If play’s title inspires contempt rather than nostalgia in a senior citizen, generating interest in a revival is an uphill battle. But it’s a battle Henry Wishcamper, director of the Goodman’s production, was anticipating.

“I love classic American plays,” he says. “Political plays often feel dated, but this one feels relevant. It’s a statement about America that can still be made about America today. It’s relevant and uncomfortable.”

The Little Foxes concerns the machinations and manipulations within a southern family in 1900 after they find a Chicago investor to help them bring a cotton mill to their town. The attraction to the Yankee is that southern blacks will work for $3 a week while unionized northern workers are demanding $8. The members of the Hubbard family, meanwhile, are practically licking their lips in anticipation of the millions they’ll be making, exploited workers be damned. In 1900, there were Hubbards all over America, as Ben Hubbard points out in one major speech, and their collective actions will lead, a few decades later, to the Great Migration and the transformation of America, a transformation that was depicted in the Goodman’s previous production, August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, set in 1960s Pittsburgh. When Wishcamper first proposed the Goodman do The Little Foxes, he didn’t know that Two Trains would also be running this season, but he thinks their proximity on the schedule is a happy coincidence.

“Both are about American history,” he says, “the intersection of race and economics and gender. They do it in completely different ways, but it’s fascinating to see them next to each other.” Also, he enjoys seeing Hellman and Wilson, two playwrights generally not viewed as canonical, get their due.

The other thing about The Little Foxes, though, is that it’s really fun. Hellman wrote it not just to make a statement, but also to entertain, and it’s full of juicy parts. And, as Tony Adler notes in his review, the cast of Chicago stage veterans digs in. Wishcamper, who began his career in New York before moving here three years ago, doesn’t think he could have found the same sort of gusto in a group of New York actors; Chicagoans, he says, have a more “muscular” performing style. And they’re experienced with older plays. In New York, producers and directors tend to prefer new work to revivals.

  • Liz Lauren
  • Shannon Cochran as Regina Giddens in her Wicked Witch moment

But even though The Little Foxes is essentially an old-fashioned melodrama, Wishcamper’s cast doesn’t play it that way. (The most melodramatic touches are the musical cues that begin and end each of the three acts and the tableau at the end of Act II that makes Shannon Cochran’s Regina look like the Wicked Witch of the West without the green makeup.) For the most part, they play their roles naturalistically without aping the speech patterns of actors in old movies and without stepping outside the points of view of their characters to indicate that anyone is Pure Evil. As Wishcamper puts it, “you have to make clear the game is being played without twirling the mustache.”

While he stayed close to the script as it was written (closer than the movie adaptation, which skated over issues of race and added a romance), Wishcamper and the actors had the freedom to calibrate their line readings and gestures to add their own interpretations of the words. “The way calibration affects how gender is being read, how race is being read, how patriarchy is being ready has a very real impact on the characters.”

And, in some ways, contemporary theatergoers may have a clearer view of Hellman’s intentions. “I do think Hellman wanted the audience to relate and to root for Regina,” Wishcamper says. “In the 30s, audiences found her dismissible as evil. It’s hard not to see. But she doesn’t have a lot of options. She’s a woman with no money of her own, no control. Her only choice is to be stronger and smarter than the men around her. It’s easier for an audience today to have the relationship I imagine Hellman wanted us to have with the character. We’ve been sincerely trying to craft an entertainment and push aspects of the play that Hellman wanted to be uncomfortable and challenging.”