The Shaw Festival’s in-depth look at dysfunctional marriages moves to the Deep South with Lillian Hellman’s caustic portrait of the Hubbard clan. With the turn of the century (to 1900) inspiring endless possibilities, the merchant-class family has set its greedy sights on untold wealth by going into partnership with a northern (Chicago) entrepreneur who can taste huge profits on the backs of the poor by “bringing the machine to the cotton, and not the cotton to the machine.”
Accordingly, the show opens with a celebratory dinner to toast the joint venture at the home of Regina Giddens (Laurie Paton). Her brothers, Oscar (Peter Krantz) and Ben (Ric Reid) previously split the Hubbard estate—Regina, being a woman, didn’t get a dime so had to create her own cash flow by marrying a banker: Horace Giddens (David Jansen) can’t make the dinner (or approve the deal) as he’s been at Johns Hopkins Hospital (Baltimore) for five months, being poked and prodded in slim hopes that his deteriorating heart (whose medical condition says “Hi y’all” to his equally ill marriage) can be put right.
The only non-Hubbard at the gathering (not counting the servants, of course) aside from the guest-of-honour, William Marshall (Norman Browning), is Oscar’s chatterbox wife, Birdie. She has been married opportunistically due to her vrai background as an aristocrat. Daddy (can’t you just hear Blanche from the Golden Girls?) was a former Governor and “Lionnet” of a model plantation where “We were good to our people. Everybody knew that.” Oscar thought more of Birdie’s real estate and status than her charms, but still managed to father a lazy-bum son (Gray Powell) whose thieving, boozing, womanizing ways prove him to be a Hubbard of the first rank.
Stop the presses.
In bringing this truly miserable character to life, Sharry Flett has crafted a performance that not only rises above her considerably talented colleagues but also successfully challenges them to keep apace.
As the dithering music lover, she burbles over with enthusiasm about “securing Wagner’s autograph”; when trying to explain away a vicious, cowardly slap-on-the-face landed by her gutless husband to her worshipping niece, Alexandra (Krista Colosimo), Flett’s combined body/visage/speech response spectacularly belies the spoken fib (“twisted my ankle”) with a cocktail of shame, humiliation and denialism that is truly devastating. That considerable achievement is amazingly bested by the elderberry-wine confession to her niece (whom she loves far more than her own son) that shocks in its veracity. By spelling out her own self-destructive path (“I never had a headache … That’s a little lie they tell for me. I drink.”), the courageous, defeated woman hopes to save her favourite relative from an awful fate: “… in twenty years you’ll be just like me.”). Tough as these lines are to read, Flett sears through them in an unforgettable manner that quite rightly chilled the room due to their raw intensity.
Director Eda Holmes—aided and abetted by Cameron Porteous’ overall design and Kevin Lamotte’s lighting—has created a black-and-light production that reinforces the playwright’s vision nearly every step of the way. (Only the top-of-the-stairs, larger-than-life projections miss the mark.)
Yet, how must it feel to be black, adopt the caricatured speech pattern of times past then bow and scrape to “your white folks” night after night on stage? Is that why I became an actor? Will a white person ever be cast in the servant roles? (Can’t wait for a total reversal production.)
Thank goodness for Richard Stewart as Cal and Lisa Codrington as Addie. Both endure the scripted taunts “I think you should either be a nigger or a millionaire ….”), provide much-needed comic relief (Cal’s description of his incomprehensible errand is a hoot), and understand the world far better than their masters. “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people in it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.” Codrington renders the famous speech in a quiet knowing manner that lets the notion sink in far deeper than would be the case with a more declamatory style.
Each of the acts begins in darkness, becomes illuminated—literally and figuratively—then slips back into the abyss of human cruelty and fear. Tellingly, it falls to the lowest of the social order to shed light on their “betters,” which they do with the heady combination of stoicism and class. Surrounded by all manner of schemers and manipulators of “our people” it’s pathetically heartening to witness a large dose of justice meted out to the despised (for this odious effort Krantz was rewarded with cheers and boos) before Hellman’s masterful pillory most certainly fades to black. JWR