Sarah Day and Jonathan Smoots are larger than life.
Families are supposed to be places of refuge, sources of comfort and safety when you're feeling vulnerable. But as American Players Theatre shows with Another Part of the Forest, if you're born into the wrong one, you can never let your guard down.
The prequel to playwright Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, Forest follows the misadventures of Bowden, Ala.'s Hubbard clan 15 years after the War Between the States. Father Marcus is a merchant and former war profiteer who made his fortune colluding with the North. He dismissively tolerates his wife, Lavinia, who considers the family money tainted by sin and dreams of repenting by starting a school for "the colored children."
Oldest son Ben works for the family business; he's competent, but bitterly bruised from serving for so long as the target of Marcus' contempt. His younger brother Oscar gets the same treatment from their father, but is too obliviously immature to let it bother him -- all he's worried about is getting enough money from Dad to marry a whore with whom he's "deeply and sincerely in love." Daughter Regina is the baby, a greedy 20-year-old who's disturbingly happy using her sex appeal to manipulate her father.
With the exception of Lavinia, the Hubbards are utterly self-absorbed and uninterested in each other except as means to an end -- imagine a brutally real-life version of sitcom Arrested Development's Bluth family. They're despicable. Or they ought to be, but Hellman's writing and the actors' execution reveal them as wrenchingly well-rounded. Oh, they're ugly on the inside, but glimpses of beauty -- or at least, aspirations to beauty -- shine through.
At Saturday's opening-night performance at APT's outdoor Up the Hill theater, the humidity enhanced the sense of sitting outside an elegant, vine-strewn Southern mansion. (Rain briefly threatened to shut down the production, but the players summarily ignored it, and it shortly cleared up.) With a somewhat complex story rooted in class distinctions of the post-Civil War South, the show took a few minutes to get into, and the first of its three acts was nearly over before the plot became fully clear.
But an abundance of dry, biting repartee and cast members' organic interplay kept the crowd enthralled. As Regina, Tiffany Scott was alternately wickedly attractive and wincingly pitiful. David Daniel, as her beau Capt. John Bagtry, defended the Confederacy's stance in the war with a quiet nobility so convincing it was unnerving. And Sarah Day and Jonathan Smoots were simultaneously larger than life and authentic, her Lavinia going from kicked dog to free woman and his Marcus from self-made man of culture to dignified wretch in a totally believable fashion. As the pathetic, homely Birdie Bagtry, forced to ask the Hubbards for help to keep her family and workers fed, Susan Shunk was the emotional center of the show.
Ultimately, Birdie and the rest of the characters all get what they deserve, but the play's resolution highlights the difference between justice and goodness. At just over three hours (including two 15-minute intermissions), Forest will keep audiences both laughing and horrified, sometimes at the same time.