A stacked ensemble, led by Shannon Cochran's marvelously cruel Regina Giddens, makes Lillian Hellman's Southern melodrama a still-modern thrill.
“Cynicism is an unpleasant way of telling the truth,” sneers Larry Yando’s contempt-dripping Ben Hubbard, in a moment of cold-hearted negotiation with his equally scheming siblings, Oscar (Steve Pickering) and Regina (Shannon Cochran). The Hubbards’ truths and lies alike are coated in cynicism in Lillian Hellman’s 1939 melodrama. The siblings, who’ve made a small fortune as shop owners through price gouging, land grabbing and playing poor whites against poor blacks, seek to increase their fortunes by building a cotton plant. But to do so, they require investment from Regina’s husband, Horace Giddens (John Judd). Their lying, cheating and stealing in order to secure his money, all while screwing each other over in the bargain, drive the soapy plot.
Though Hellman’s Southern Gothic is set in 1900, its commentary on the corrupting power of greed has lost no meaning. The Goodman’s lavish new staging, featuring gorgeous work by set designer Todd Rosenthal and costumer Jenny Mannis, benefits from an embarrassment of acting talent in its ten-member cast. It would be easy enough to play the Hubbard siblings, along with their sniveling assistant, Oscar’s son Leo (Dan Waller), as camp villains, pure id. Waller’s Leo almost is, in fact, but he’s not written as smart enough to have much more going on. That’s not the case with Pickering and Yando, who give layers to their scorn. And the face-off between Judd’s Horace and Cochran’s towering Regina—one of the most chilling stage creations in recent memory—is a thrilling battle of wills.
Mary Beth Fisher and Rae Gray offer heartbreaking portraits of the innocents caught in the crossfire; Gray’s Alexandra, Horace and Regina’s daughter, represents the best work I’ve yet seen from a rising young actress holding her own among an ensemble full of titans. In his staging's final moment, director Henry Wishcamper gives her a kind of pyrrhic moral victory over the mother she now sees fully for the first time, leaving Cochran almost pitiable. Almost.
Goodman Theatre. By Lillian Hellman. Directed by Henry Wishcamper. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 50mins; two intermissions.