With corruption scandals further undermining a government already on shaky ground, the greed-driven skullduggery in "The Little Foxes" has a special, up-to-the-moment relevance that does not escape Laird Williamson's ACT revival.

With corruption scandals further undermining a government already on shaky ground, the greed-driven skullduggery in “The Little Foxes” has a special, up-to-the-moment relevance that does not escape Laird Williamson’s ACT revival. Then again, he doesn’t push it too far — a wise choice, since Lillian Hellman’s 1939 drama can withstand only so much imposed profundity. This sturdy if imperfect production proves the juicy potboiler can still keep viewers glued to their seats — and, for lack of a sufficiently showy turn in the showiest role, turns what has often played as a star vehicle into a viable ensemble showcase.

Perhaps that particular role has been unfairly typed by its origination in the paws of larger-than-life tigresses (Tallulah Bankhead onstage, Bette Davis on film). Still, something feels lacking in Jacqueline Antaramian’s competent turn as scheme queen Regina Giddens. This deceptive Southern belle — poisonous where Scarlett O’Hara was merely petulant — has always lived in comfort. Yet her lust for wealth and power is such that she’s willing to sacrifice brothers, husband and daughter if it will secure her goals. Antaramian ably conveys hunger and intelligence, but the deeper, ruthless amorality is missing, and along with it the sure domination of stage and fellow characters.

Absence of an overpoweringly charismatic centerpiece, however, does allow one to appreciate how well Hellman’s text holds up, and in Williamson’s hands there’s nary a dull moment over the nearly three-hour runtime.

Production’s main misstep is in its design: While striking, the blood-red Gothicism of Robert Blackman’s Gidden manse salon and grand staircase screams “Murder!” and “Infamy!” from the get-go, so show’s tone can’t subtly darken from one act to another as it should. (Since the fiery effect is a matter of backlighting through translucent reddish panels, Blackman and lighting designer Russel H. Champa could have gradually amped it up through the evening, rather than going whole-hog straight off.)

Against this Poe-like house-of-horror backdrop, act one finds Regina and her brothers — bullying Ben (Jack Willis) and boorish Oscar (Robert Parsons) — successfully wooing a Chicago businessman (Stephen Klum) into building a local cotton mill that, combined with their cotton fields, will make the Hubbard siblings truly rich at last.

The main obstacle is that Regina has yet to secure financial participation from her husband, Horace (Nicholas Hormann). He’s been absent several months, recovering from a heart condition at a Baltimore sanitarium.

Regina sends naive 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Grace Heid) to haul him back — not for a hoped-for reconciliation, but a haranguing demand that he fork over the needed cash. With it, Regina can blackmail her brothers into a subservient position. Without it, they can cut her out of the deal entirely. Showing up frail but full of resolve, Horace plans to thwart his wife once and for all.

Overwrought death scene aside, Hormann proves Regina’s match, giving the drama additional muscle from Horace’s arrival. Another standout is Julia Gibson as Oscar’s abused wife, Birdie, a nervous ditherer and closet drunk whose devastating third-act monologue reveals just how aware she is of her plight — chained to a brute who married her for money, with a stupid lout (John Bull’s Leo) their only child.

The slimy Hubbard men are nicely handled. Even more so are the roles of Addie (Margarette Robinson) and Cal (Rhonnie Washington), black longtime servants whose variably kind and cruel treatment further separates the naughty from the nice.

Blackman’s costumes are handsome, though loud-hued gowns worn by Regina in acts one and three border on the garish.

The Little Foxes

American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco; 1,035 seats; $80 top

Production

An ACT presentation of a play in three acts by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Laird Williamson.

Creative

Set and costumes, Robert Blackman; lighting, Russell H. Champa; sound, Steve Schoenbeck. Opened, reviewed Nov. 1, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast

Addie - Margarette Robinson Cal - Rhonnie Washington Birdie Hubbard - Julia Gibson Oscar Hubbard - Robert Parsons Leo Hubbard - John Bull Regina Giddens - Jacqueline Antaramian William Marshall - Stephen Klum Benjamin Hubbard - Jack Willis Alexandra Giddens - Grace Heid Horace Giddens - Nicholas Hormann
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