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Lillian Hellman’s poisonous 1939 melodrama “The Little Foxes,” which opened in a tepid production Friday night in the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Andrews Theatre, contains some of the more fantastically despicable characters in American drama.

There are two witless brothers, Oscar and Benjamin Hubbard (Eric Rawski and Robert Rutland), who lash out at one another like scorpions in a cage. There is Leo Hubbard, Oscar’s even dimmer son, whose moral compass was broken at birth. And then, of course, there is the conniving Regina Giddens (Josephine Hogan), the prototypical soap opera antiheroine whose ruthless scheme to rob her family blind leaves behind a path of smoldering destruction.

But the Irish Classical’s production of this American classic, under the direction of Greg Natale, leaves most of the play’s devastating potential on the table.

Part of the trouble is a lukewarm effort from the show’s talented leading lady, whose overly broad interpretation of Regina rarely rises to the scalding temperature the character demands. A disconcertingly uneven performance from Adria Ryan as Oscar Hubbard’s neurotic wife Birdie further destabilizes the show from the outset. It wobbles along that way until the last line, despite the honorable efforts of the rest of the cast to set things right.

The show takes place entirely in the drawing room of the Giddens household in small-town Alabama at the beginning of the 20th century. As the play opens, we come to learn about an imminent business deal among Giddens, her money-grubbing brothers and a major Chicago textile company. The only missing piece is cash from Regina’s husband Horace (Gary Darling), who is recuperating from heart trouble in Baltimore and has no intention of lending his money to an enterprise that would exploit the citizens and degrade the already tattered fabric of his small Alabama town.

Regina, evil as she is, decides to send her 17-year-old daughter (the fine Andrea Gollhardt) to Baltimore to collect her ailing husband and drag him and his checkbook back to Alabama. (“He mustn’t stay there any longer with those alarmist doctors,” she declares with characteristic malice.) When Horace finally arrives, all hell breaks loose, and the well-laid schemes of these greedy Southerners get tied up in any number of moral conundrums. Things end badly.

The production features some wonderful character work from supporting cast members Gollhardt, Rawski, Rutland and Annette Daniels Taylor as the family’s maid, but what’s left of the show after Hogan and Ryan are done with it belongs largely to Darling. His gravelly voice is perfectly suited to Horace, a man determined to use his calculating intellect for good instead of evil. As he did in Subversive Theatre and New Phoenix Theatre’s co-production of “Inherit the Wind,” Darling renders his character’s exasperation and surprise in bold and striking tones without verging into caricature.

The same can’t be said for Hogan, an unquestionably talented stage presence who occasionally struggles to find the gutsy, earthbound timbre that peculiarly American characters such as Regina require. Darling’s company makes her better, but not enough.

It is likely that the production was suffering from a particularly acute case of opening-night creakiness, that unavoidable pitfall of a short rehearsal process. But its flaws seem to extend far deeper than a simple lack of chemistry.

That is a shame, because Hellman’s wonderful, terrible collection of characters, which made their way from this play into so many American soap operas and films, still have plenty to teach us about the corrupting effects of wealth and the way it enables bad behavior.

“You’ll be rich,” Hogan’s Regina cackles to her brother at one point early in the play, “and the rich don’t have to be subtle.”

But sometimes, even in melodramas such as “The Little Foxes,” the actors do.

review

2 ½ stars (Out of four)

What: “The Little Foxes”

When: Through Nov. 17

Where: Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St.

Tickets: $35 to $39

Info: 853-4282 or www.irishclassical.com

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com