October 7, 2008

2nd Story’s Enormously Entertaining Show ; Theater Review

By Channing Gray

When last we heard from the cutthroat Hubbard clan, sister Regina was pulling a fast one on brothers Ben and Oscar. That was three years ago, when 2nd Story Theatre staged Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, which tells of the battles between the ruthless Hubbard siblings.

Now the Warren theater is putting on the prequel to Little Foxes, Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, which drops in on the Hubbards 20 years earlier, in a small Alabama town, as Ben goes up against his tyrannical father, Marcus.

It's quite a battle, one that leaves more than its share of casualties. It's also one in which the audience wins out, an enormously entertaining show that despite its two intermissions, whizzes by. It's a fascinating study in greed and the quest for power among people who were raised to go for the jugular.

One reason it flies by is the crisp direction from Ed Shea, and some fine performances from the cast, especially Vince Petronio as the imperious Marcus Hubbard, who made a fortune during the Civil War selling salt to the troops at inflated prices. Marcus is a self- made man, who came from poverty and taught himself Greek while working in the fields. He rules over the Hubbard manse with an iron first, but he is also vulnerable. He is hiding a dark secret from his past, and when Ben finds out the details, he threatens to ruin his father.

It's a grand tale, one told superbly by Hellman, the master of cogent and compelling dialogue.

Marcus is, for example, a wonderful study in contrasts. He's an unscrupulous profiteer who likes nothing better than spending the evening playing Mozart. He fancies himself a man of some breeding, but treats his kids like dirt and dismisses his fragile wife, Lavinia, a religious fanatic who wants nothing more than to run a school for black children.

The only one of his children he's close to is 20-year-old Regina, who knows how to lay on the Southern charm when it suits her purpose.

Gabby Sherba, who played Regina's daughter Alexandra in 2nd Story's Little Foxes, is terrific as the young Regina, coming across as coquettish one moment and a shrew the next. It's a wonderful self- assured performance with lots of edge, one of the best Sherba has given at 2nd Story.

Lynne Collinson also deserves a hand for her portrayal of long- suffering Lavinia, the wife who holds the secret to her husband's past and is, despite her sweet nature, not above playing family politics when it comes to a showdown with Marcus. She seems innocent, a woman with a delicate emotional make up who is concerned only about things spiritual. But when it comes to getting her way, to funding her school and getting money to support her aged maid, Coralee, she is just as ruthless as the rest of the Hubbards.

Hers is a well-shaded performance that reveals just how dysfunctional the family is.

But no one is nastier than Coleman Crenshaw's Ben, who spends the play just waiting to make his move. Both sons, Ben and Oscar, work in the family store for slave wages. While Oscar is the dim-witted member of the family, an illiterate who has the hots for a crude prostitute, Ben is the schemer, the guy who is trying to marry Regina into money and take advantage of the neighbors' financial problems.

He's the one who knows that Regina is carrying on an affair with Mark Gentsch's John Bagtry, the cavalry officer whose fondest memories are fighting for the South. At 36, he's an empty shell of a man who tries to convince Regina to hook up with someone else, while he heads off to Brazil to fight in yet another war.

The whole show is a little like the long-running TV soap, Dallas. Think of Ben as the manipulative J.R. Ewing, but without a wife to abuse. Crenshaw's Ben is hard, uncaring and cold, someone who has followed in the footsteps of his cruel father.

All this is played out on the porch of Trevor Elliot's Hubbard homestead, a set that looks more like a Newport condo than an antebellum mansion. That fact that there is a set at all is a little unexpected, though. Back in the summer, director Shea said he was doing away with sets altogether, that they got in the way of the language and were too costly.

But for this detailed, realistic drama, he wanted a detailed, realistic backdrop. So he planted a facade of a house in one of the sections of seats, which are laid out in the round. The move, a welcome one, has cut out about 40 seats, making the theater all the more intimate.

The other nice touch are Ron Cesario's lush period costumes, especially Regina's elegant gowns.

Don't go looking for a lot of hidden meaning in this play, though. Another Part of the Forest is just a great tale, well told by Shea and his actors.

Another Part of the Forest runs though Oct. 26 at 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St., Warren. Tickets are $25. Call (401) 247- 4200.

Regina Hubbard (Gabby Sherba) and her lover John Bagtry (Mark Genstch) in Another Part of the Forest at 2nd Story Theatre. 2nd Story Theatre / Richard W. Dionne Jr.

Ben Hubbard (right, Coleman Crenshaw) listens as his parents, Marcus (left, Vince Petronio) and Lavinia (Lynne Collinson) discuss the family future in Another Part of the Forest. 2nd Story Theatre / Richard W. Dionne Jr. [email protected] / (401) 277-7492

Originally published by Channing Gray, Journal Arts Writer.

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