Conveniently arriving in the same week, two rarely seen plays from the American past, both written by strong-minded, leftward-leaning women, supply a kind of kick that today’s theater needs—a good, swift kick to one of today’s biggest potential targets, corporate paternalism. Both works premiered at pivotal historical moments: Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford’s Can You Hear Their Voices? in 1931, as the Depression swept across the country, and Another Part of the Forest, Lillian Hellman’s prequel to her prewar hit, The Little Foxes, in 1946, just as we began to take stock of ourselves after World War II.
The later and larger work, Hellman’s is also the better. The Little Foxes (1939)—with Tallulah Bankhead as its central bitch-figure, Regina Giddens, née Hubbard—had scored a gigantic success, emboldening Hellman to revisit its characters in a mood of postwar retrospection. In Another Part of the Forest, the year is 1880. The Civil War is still fresh in Southern minds; Regina (Stephanie Wright Thompson), not yet Mrs. Horace Giddens, and her two brothers, Ben (Matthew Floyd Miller) and Oscar (Ben Curtis), still chafe under the sway of their absolutist father, Marcus Hubbard (Sherman Howard). Marcus dotes on Regina, mistrusts clever, conniving Ben, and has only contempt for both foolish Oscar and for his children’s neurasthenic, desperately pious mother, Lavinia (Elizabeth Norment). The area’s residents uniformly despise the Hubbards, “piney-woods” riff-raff who’ve gentrified through Marcus’s war profiteering and, says local rumor, through his treachery, which caused the massacre of a Confederate battalion stationed nearby.
The unproveable treachery, for which evidence of a kind duly emerges, becomes the puzzle piece that springs the tightly coiled trap of the Hubbard family’s interlocking circumstances, like the missing bonds in The Little Foxes. But in that play, which takes place two decades later, Regina and her brothers have reached a plateau of quiet mutual detestation; here, Hellman paints them as young, eager animals, hating each other as furiously as they do their common paternal enemy. The effect of their crisscrossing schemes and antipathies sometimes feels akin to watching zoo animals hiss and snarl at each other.
Hellman often relieves this claustrophobic effect through humor—she has a tremendous knack for planting a spiteful laugh line just where the pain is greatest—and through the intrusion of outsiders into the Hubbards’ involuted, isolated realm, including Birdie Bagtry (Kendall Rileigh), land-poor heiress to a plantation that Ben Hubbard covets; her cousin, John (Christopher Kelly), a Confederate veteran romantically coveted by Regina; and Laurette (Ryah Nixon), a local hooker whom Oscar, with typical foolishness, dreams of marrying. Except for Birdie, who is ensnared (she will end up as Oscar’s forlorn, booze-drenched wife in The Little Foxes), these outsiders are all ultimately driven off by the Hubbards’ clashing machinations; even the cheap whore thinks this family isn’t good enough for her. The household’s black servants, treated by Marcus and his offspring as so much animated furniture, mostly observe the proceedings with impassive, patient silence, inner emigrants from this domestic totalitarian state.
Hellman doesn’t oversimplify: She presents Ben’s toppling of Marcus, by which he also brings his siblings to heel, as a distinctly mixed blessing. Though crooked, cowardly, and vicious, Marcus is also seen as the source of the family’s energy, as its one achiever and as its only spokesman for culture and the life of the mind. A beneficent monster, he is depicted as trying to create an oasis of civilization with the fortune he built on lies and fraud, in the mold of the robber barons of that Gilded Age who erected America’s museums, libraries, and concert halls. Instead, in the hands of heirs who share his monstrosity but lack his beneficence, his wherewithal will simply be modernized into a sleeker, more broad-based continuation of the same lies and fraud; The Little Foxes, unlike this play, contains no talk of Aristotle or music schools.
Dan Wackerman’s production, on a spacious, effective set by Joseph Spirito, handles this demanding script effectively, given the limits of Off-Off production for a work of its scale. That the play seems intense rather than overdone or crude indicates how well its spirit has been caught: Its sheer nastiness, its open negativity convey an almost tonic exhilaration. The acting, overall, is solid, though always edging toward, and once or twice pitching headlong into, coarseness. Howard, forceful yet varied, almost mercurial, as the patriarch, comes off best; Norment and Curtis second him particularly well.
Moving slightly northward from Hellman’s Alabama to the drought-plagued, desperate farmers of rural Arkansas in 1931, we come to Can You Hear Their Voices?, a work both quintessential and anomalous. An academic product, the script demonstrates how openly radical even academia’s most respectable sectors could become in confronting the economic nightmare of the Depression. Flanagan (1889–1969), a thoroughly remarkable figure, taught drama and ran the Experimental Theatre at Vassar, where Can You Hear Their Voices? premiered; she moved on shortly afterward to become head of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project and a major force in U.S. theatrical history. Clifford, a student of Flanagan’s when the play was created, subsequently headed the drama department at Skidmore for 20 years.
Flanagan and Clifford evolved Voices from a short story in the leftist magazine New Masses, written by Whittaker Chambers, later notorious for his role in the Alger Hiss case. It lays out the misery of the drought then affecting small farmers and sharecroppers in the Ozarks in a manner that is stilted and simplistic, but not inauthentic. Alternating scenes of starvation among the rural poor with brittle snippets of high life among the rich and their political cronies, it traces a path to nonviolent revolution in terms that stress humanity and fairness over agitprop. Peculiar Works’ production, impressively elaborate for such threadbare circumstances, tends to push the ideas at you heavily, but a genuine faith in the work’s immediate relevance dignifies the pushing. Inartistic the results may be, but given the mess the world is currently in, other concerns may be more urgent than artistry.