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'Little Foxes' is engaging, worth many viewings

On any ordinary day, walking into Market Street's Bodley-Bullock House is a little like walking back in time.

During the first week of November though, walking into the Bodley-Bullock House is like being suddenly and magically transported to the turn of the 20th century, with strong flavors of 19th century Southern aristocracy wafting throughout the house and out onto the back veranda, where you are greeted by a harpist, wine, hors d'oevres, and about 15 or so other guests.

After wine sipping and some genteel mingling, a period costumed guide appears and ferries the audience through the home's front door and into the parlor for the opening performance of On the Verge Productions debut show, The Little Foxes.

Set in 1900, The Little Foxes is playwright Lillian Hellman's scintillating family drama about the Hubbards, a wealthy Alabama family that clings to a false notion of entitled aristocracy while taking advantage of the South's wealth of newly freed blacks to buoy their cut-throat business dealings.

Ostensibly a parlor room drama, The Little Foxes has far wider implications than a nostalgic nod to times past. It illuminates, through the Hubbard family, a pivotal moment in American history when the Old South lingered as a decayed parody of its former self and the industrial revolution stood poised to reshape the region's identity.

Director Ave Lawyer artfully and intelligently displays these and other truths in this smart, thrilling, and elegantly executed production. The audience's proximity to the actors creates a sense of intimate voyeurism of almost cinematic quality. Refreshments served between acts, when the audience moves about the house following the play's action, makes you feel suddenly less like a voyeur and more like a participant, like an actual guest in the play's household.

As the sole Hubbard with no inheritance, Regina Hubbard Giddens is the play's central character. Richly layered, sternly ambitious, and greedy for an even higher society life, Regina is a woman stuck between the economic realities of two centuries. Powerless in her own right, Regina is forced to use her influence over men to ensure her livelihood. As the play progresses, Regina's methods of manipulation evolve from demure gentility to open blackmail.

It is fascinating to watch Regina's trajectory in the hands of actress Janet Scott, who plays her with captivating oscillations from grace to cruelty, often both at the same time.

It is a shame that tickets are sold out, because hers is the kind of performance worthy of many viewings.

Another such performance is Joan Rue as Birdie Bagtry Hubbard, the Hubbard family's only legitimate tie to authentic, old fashioned Southern aristocracy. Poor Birdie is a sweet, gentle, kind-souled woman who was romantically swindled into marrying Oscar Hubbard for her family's money and land. Now that she served her purpose, the Hubbards treat her with little more significance (and arguably less) than their slave descendant servant, Addie (Brenda Crutcher).

The supporting cast turn in extraordinarily strong performances in their own right. From Roger Leasor and Paul Thomas as the deceptively greedy and manipulative Hubbard brothers, to Kathryn Norman's coming of age performance as Alexandra Hubbard, to Robert Parks Johnson's portrayal of Regina's wealthy but ailing husband Horace.

As much as site-specific theater is about the performance space, the play is still the thing. At no time in The Little Foxes does the mansion compete with the play in grandeur or gravitas. Both are equally magnificent and what's more, the cast and the stately home, and at some points, the audiences too, share an intimate, palpable chemistry, working in organic symbiosis.

This is not mystery dinner theater or historical re-enactment; this is art — astute, innovative, well-crafted, politically relevant and as emotionally raw as it is stylistically refined.

On the Verge's inaugural performance is more than a show — it is an experience, one that is elegant, novel, engaging, and one of a kind.

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