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Welcome Back, Lillian Hellman Peccadillo Theater launches a mini-revival for an overlooked playwright

by MARK PEIKERT

Playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman saw her reputation wax and wane with regularity during her lifetime. Her early theatrical success with The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes was followed by the Hollywood blacklist, then a sudden resurgence with the publication of her memoir.  That resurrection signaled her next collapse, however, since her tendency to appropriate the heroics of others as her own threatened to permanently mar her legacy.

Now, her fortunes may be turning again. For the next few months, New Yorkers will be able to judge Hellman not by her controversial life, but on the strength of her writing.  New York Theatre Workshop will revive The Little Foxes  this fall, and from now until July 3, Peccadillo Theater Company is presenting that play’s prequel, Another Part of the Forest.

This is practically a Hellman renaissance. Despite what Peccadillo’s artistic director Dan Wackerman calls her “mordant wit” and her sure hand for the construction of melodramas, her plays are rarely seen in New York.  The Pearl Theatre staged her play Toys in the Attic in 2007, and before that, her last major production was a Broadway revival of Foxes in 1997.

In an ironic twist that Hellman herself might appreciate, this absence isn’t due to her controversial politics or the questionable veracity of her memoirs.  It’s due to simple red tape.
 
“There’s been such a revival of interest in Inge, in Miller, in Williams in the last fifteen years or so, and yet not Hellman,” says Wackerman, who is directing Another Part of the Forest“And the reason for that has been that the Hellman estate was very restrictive. We’ve been trying to obtain the rights for well over ten years. That’s why a whole generation now doesn’t know Lillian Hellman, one of the great American playwrights, in my opinion. And one of the things that excites me about this production is the chance to re-introduce Hellman to a New York City audience.”

Another Part of the Forest seems uniquely suited to that task. Set in 1880, twenty years before the Hubbard siblings Ben, Oscar and Regina double- and triple-cross each other in The Little Foxes, the play provides a slightly more frivolous glimpse at the Hubbards’ lives. They’re still selfish and crass, and they still obsess over how to get the most money with the least amount of work, but they’re also surprisingly funny.

“Hellman’s sense of humor was very dark,” Wackerman says. “And there’s a sense of humor in The Little Foxes, but there’s much more in Another Part of the Forest . Everyone’s younger, and because of that, there’s much more opportunity for humor. But Hellman, again, had a worldview which was bleak at the same time that it was funny in an existential way.”

Though Hellman’s plays are peopled with gleefully malicious characters, she also had a fondness for fragile women, most memorably the character Birdie, Oscar Hubbard’s wealthy, alcoholic wife, who appears in both "Hubbard plays."

Of course, no matter how much she may have liked her, Hellman takes care to decimate poor Birdie in both scripts. “I can’t think of a play with the kind of emotional cruelty that you have in Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes, prior to those two,” says Wackerman. “Hellman really ups the stakes in a way that, I would guess, Edward Albee was aware of when he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That kind of lacerating humor and emotional violence that figures in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is there in Foxes and Another Part of the Forest. Deliberately wounding each other for the sheer pleasure of wounding each other.”

Of course, whereas Albee’s Martha had a sparring partner equal to her, Hellman’s Regina, the fiery center of the Hubbard clan, has alienated everyone in her life by the end of her second play. The full force of her tragedy is only revealed in Another Part of the Forest, when her brother and father’s determination to use her to their advantage throws into relief something that is often lost in the melodrama of The Little Foxes: the sense that Regina is a particularly unwilling victim of circumstance. She’s far from a Southern belle, even as a young woman, but she’s also, somewhat touchingly, trapped in a life she knows she doesn’t want.

The unique thing about Hellman---and perhaps one of the reasons she’s not mentioned in the same breath as Tennessee Williams and William Inge---is that, instead of letting Regina be fashionably destroyed by her situation as those writers might have, she allows her to triumph.

And now, after all these years, both the character and her creator look poised to triumph all over again.

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Mark Peikert is the theatre critic for New York Press.