Crooks in the Piney Wood

Lillian Hellman’s prequel to The Little Foxes continues her indictment of unrestrained capitalism, showing the rise of a ruthless, post-Civil War mercantile class built on the exploitation of impoverished fellow Southerners and emancipated blacks. But the script for Another Part of the Forest is so laden with greed, snobbery, betrayal, madness, and incest that its serious intent is often masked. If Dan Wackerman’s production for Peccadillo Theater Company isn’t always convincing, much of the problem lies with the writer. At least Hellman was smart enough not to just rehash Foxes. Even if audiences wanted to see more of the cold, grasping Regina Giddens and her brothers, the wily Ben and the manipulated, doltish Oscar, Hellman’s focus here has changed. Another Part of the Forest is about the rise of Ben, Regina’s archrival in Foxes, though for long stretches the center of attention is their parents, Marcus Hubbard, and his wife, Lavinia, a religious woman determined to go on a mission. (Their names are a nod to Titus Andronicus, another potboiler by a writer who did better work elsewhere.)

Marcus (Sherman Howard) is a distant parent, a self-made tycoon happy to squeeze anyone for money—and he’s made his on the blood and sweat of others. He’s a tyrant to his family and disdains his sons, as many self-made men do, while emotionally abusing Lavinia and exhibiting an unhealthy attraction to Regina.

Marcus controls his family's purse strings tightly; that allows him to summon Ben to work on a Sunday and claim he can’t remember why Ben was called. Capricious and cruel, Marcus also refuses Ben money to make a shrewd investment and Oscar the funds to get married. Played with a mix of petulance and comic exasperation by Ben Curtis, the blundering Oscar is the only one of the men who is emotionally open to loving. Unfortunately his sweetheart has been a prostitute, and Oscar gives voice to some pre-feminist ideas about a woman having to do what she must to survive, declaring that society ought not to judge her harshly for that.

Through most of the play Marcus blusters and bullies his family and others. He is also obsessed with Regina, who secretly plans to flee her Alabama home with John Bagtry, a young ex-Confederate soldier (the time is 1880), and live in Chicago. “Your people deserved to lose their war and their world,” Marcus tells Bagtry. “It was a backward world, getting in the way of history. Appalling that you still don’t realize it.”

Although it’s as inevitable as Greek tragedy that Marcus will be thwarted, the character becomes tiresome long before it happens. In the meantime it’s satisfying to hear Ryah Nixon’s bumptious Laurette, Oscar’s ex-hooker, take him down a peg. “I’m not better than anybody, but I’m as good as piney wood crooks,” she declares after he’s belittled Oscar and her.

Happily, though, Matthew Floyd Miller gives a sly, nuanced performance as the louche Ben, complete with mustache and soul patch. One sympathizes with his frustration: he can outsmart anyone, including his sister. Their rivalry ought to be stronger than it is, but Stephanie Wright Thompson’s Regina isn't really his equal—she'll marry the man he chooses before she gets the upper hand.

Though Amy C. Bradshaw provides smart costumes, Joseph Spirito’s set is disorienting. Characters exit the house via French doors onto a patio, then walk up steps at the side of the patio back into an inside room. Though the back wall of the set is broken in half, as if the indoor and outdoor parts were separate, some scenes flow uninterrupted from one area to the other, so that the viewer is periodically distracted by the bewildering architecture of the house.

Wackerman has made a couple of crucial changes to the script, turning Regina’s goodnight kiss to her father into a full-blown incestuous response, which is dramatically dubious. But his changing the stage direction at the final moment of pouring coffee, so that Regina more forcefully abandons her father and throws her lot in with Ben, is much cannier—it is now the moment of transformation for the Regina we will come to know in The Little Foxes.

Peccadillo’s mission is to reexamine American classics, and Another Part of the Forest has certainly languished. But whether the play deserves renewed attention remains an open question.

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