Lillian Hellman's 1939 melodrama, set in the South of 1900, studies the voracious appetite for profit by the middle-class Hubbard clan, who look with contempt on both the aristocrats they've replaced, and their black employees whom they continue to cheat. And so the drama offers Hellman's harsh commentary on both the economic and racial foundations of prosperity by those who can afford it, usually at the expense of those who can't. In addition to his perfectly paced production, director Dámasco Rodriquez also scores points for keeping the repugnant N word that Hellman sprinkles so liberally in the most casual conversations. The plot has a Swiss-watch construction, starting with a visit by William Marshall (Tom Schmid) from Chicago, finalizing a business deal to construct a mill in the small town. Financing would involve contributing shares by three partners: Benjamin Hubbard (Steve Vinovich), his brother Oscar (Marc Singer) who married and now abuses his aristocratic wife, Birdie (Julia Duffy) and, finally, the very reluctant Horace Giddens (Geoff Pierson), who has been recuperating for months in Baltimore from a chronic heart condition. Horace's wife, Regina (Kelly McGillis), is the play's centerpiece, summoning home her ill husband and engaging in all manner of negotiations, including blackmail against the thieving Hubbards, and against her own husband, in order to grab the most money she can for herself. The play contains some Chekhovian ambiance, such as when Birdie confides that she's never experienced a happy day in 22 years, and the program notes refer to the drama as one in a series of "great American plays" that the theater has committed to produce. This may be an observant play, but it's not a great one, as it can't quite crawl inside the hearts of people it's too eager to condemn. And that's the difference between a tragedy and a potboiler. Even McGillis' fine, emotive performance as Regina, offers the tawdry "survival" excuse for her cold-blooded manipulations. It's as lame a rationalization as the serial-killer movies that blame the pathology on the killer's having been abused in childhood. Pierson's Horace is just grand tired, wise, yet still on fire to outwit the town's sundry little foxes. Nice turns also by Yvette Cason and Cleavant Derricks and the servants in residence. As Regina's coy daughter, Rachel Sondag makes an impressive transformation, from sweetness to defiance, as she slowly figures out what's going on under her nose. Paradoxically, her kind of moral outrage is also the play's undoing, serving up more of an editorial, authorial opinion than a vision an impulse Chekhov, or Tennessee Williams, rarely succumbed to. Gary Wissman's opulent yet frayed-at-the-edges set shows the beginning of a metaphor but not enough to compensate for the shortcomings of this well-crafted but limited play. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena: Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through June 28. (800) 378-7121.
Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Starts: May 29. Continues through June 28, 2009