Tempers and nostrils flare with equal frequency in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,’’ which takes place entirely in a stately living room where paintings of ancestors line the walls and the portrait of human nature is anything but reassuring.
What’s surprising about Scott Edmiston’s sizzling production at Lyric Stage Company of Boston is how much voltage still can be generated by Hellman’s melodrama about the scheming members of a wealthy Southern clan at the turn of the century. After all, “Dallas’’ and “Dynasty’’ and countless other potboilers have exhaustively mined its basic ingredients over the decades since “The Little Foxes’’ premiered on Broadway in 1939: a fortune up for grabs and a greedy family at one another’s throats.
Then again, the Ewings and the Carringtons et. al. were pikers compared with the ruthless, manipulative trio at the center of “The Little Foxes’’: Regina Giddens (Anne Gottlieb) and her brothers, Benjamin Hubbard (Remo Airaldi) and Oscar Hubbard (Will McGarrahan). A lucrative business opportunity is theirs for the taking — and taking is all this family knows how to do — but only if the three siblings can cooperate as joint investors. Harmony would be more likely in a pit of vipers.
Benjamin and Oscar need $75,000 from Regina to build a cotton mill that will make them all fabulously wealthy, but first Regina has to persuade her seriously ill husband, Horace (Craig Mathers), to release the money. Having been eclipsed by her brothers when it came to the family inheritance because she is a woman, Regina is determined to use her leverage in the business deal to grab a larger share.
Benjamin and Oscar also are not shy when it comes to power plays, to put it mildly, and as director Edmiston keeps the story driving forward, part of the tension of “The Little Foxes’’ stems from wondering who in the threesome’s path might become collateral damage as they plot and scheme. Will it be Horace, or Oscar’s abused, alcoholic wife, Birdie (Amelia Broome), whom he married solely for her money? Or sweet-natured Alexandra (Rosa Procaccino), the daughter of Horace and Regina?
Watching protectively over Alexandra is Addie (Cheryl D. Singleton), the family’s African-American maid, who functions as the conscience of both the household and the play. (When Benjamin waxes nostalgic for the “great days’’ of the Old South, Singleton communicates Addie’s feelings with the smallest turn of the head and the slightest flicker of a facial expression.) Singleton is part of a uniformly strong cast at Lyric Stage that also includes Michael John Ciszewski as Leo, the weasely son of Oscar and Birdie, all too eager to perform a nefarious act in furtherance of his father’s scheme; Bill Mootos as the opportunistic Chicago businessman who sets events in motion by dangling that divisive business opportunity before the family; and Kinson Theodoris as Cal, a servant called upon by Horace to execute a task designed to thwart Regina.
But this production is primarily driven by Gottlieb’s outstanding performance as the steely Regina and Airaldi’s compulsively watchable portrait of the suavely bullying Benjamin.
A longtime Boston theater stalwart, Airaldi simply performs the living daylights out of one of the best roles he’s had in years, fairly radiating menace and icy resolve as Benjamin. Meanwhile, Gottlieb conveys the sense of an interior storm seething constantly within Regina — and when that storm bursts, the effect is riveting.
She is playing a role with a storied history. Tallulah Bankhead originated the role of Regina on Broadway, establishing the tradition of the part as a showcase for outsize performers, who have included Bette Davis in the 1941 film version, and, on Broadway, the likes of Anne Bancroft in 1967, Elizabeth Taylor in 1981, and Stockard Channing in 1997. An experiment was tried in the Broadway revival two years ago, with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternating in the roles of Regina and Birdie.
Edmiston sticks to a straightforward approach at Lyric Stage, and that turns out to be more than enough for “The Little Foxes.’’ The production’s handsomely appointed set, complete with curved staircase and glittering chandeliers, is by Janie E. Howland. Gail Astrid Buckley designed the elegant costumes, including a stole worn by Gottlieb’s Regina that gives literal form to the play’s title — and that underscores the near-feral behavior she and her brothers have engaged in. It’s a bit of visual punctuation to Hellman’s still-relevant point: that plutocrats will go to almost any lengths in pursuit of more wealth.
THE LITTLE FOXES
Play by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through March 17. Tickets $25-$77, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin