While South Coast Repertory was in the process of creating its 2023 season, David Ivers, SCR’s artistic director, decided that the opening slot on this year’s schedule could and should be occupied by two plays that cover similar dramatic territory and explore many of the same themes.

Never in its nearly 60-year history has SCR attempted anything so ambitious, so you can be sure patrons – plus anyone else with an interest in theater – will have their eyes on the Costa Mesa venue in the coming weeks.

“The Little Foxes” and “Appropriate” will run on alternating nights, underscoring the “repertory” in the company’s name. Six actors have major roles in both shows. Each show has its own director, but one set design is in place for both.

Owing to the plays’ similarities and the origins of their authors, the double-bill is being called “Voices of America,” and Ivers is promising “an experience nobody’s ever had before.”

Even if we take that statement with a grain of salt, or view it as hyperbole, you have to admit that the concept is intriguing and its scope ambitious and perhaps even audacious. 

“The Little Foxes,” which premiered in 1939, was written by Lillian Hellman, a 20th-century Renaissance woman of letters. “Appropriate,” from 2014, is by Branden Jenkins-Jacobs, a hot commodity in terms of current U.S. playwrights (he writes for television, is showrunner and writer for the Hulu on FX series “Kindred,” and is a MacArthur Fellow).

‘Voices of America’

When: Feb. 4-26

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Tickets: $27-$98

Contact: 714-708-5500, scr.org

Both shows are three-act plays, which means Jenkins-Jacobs deliberately harkened back to the era in American culture when an evening of theater literally occupied an entire evening. Taking on either play would require considerable attention, resources and talent; staging both simultaneously amounts to what can, at the least, rightfully be called an epic endeavor.

The ambitious undertaking is also historic: Never in SCR’s history has it produced two separate plays on the same stage combined into one unified production.

How (and Why) the Plays Are Being Paired

How Ivers and company arrived at that pair of plays can only be described as happenstance – or, perhaps, fate.

The scripts of both plays, Iver said, “were in a pile for us to consider for the season.” He had “The Little Foxes” in mind and others had suggested “Appropriate.” After reading the latter, Ivers said he returned to the next meeting with a plan in mind. “I said ‘there’s no need to look further. We need to do these two plays in conversation with each other.’”

A look at the plays and their settings, plots and characters reveals the wisdom in this choice.

‘Voices of America’ Fun Facts

>>Lillian Hellman reputedly based the characters in “The Little Foxes,” which takes the myth of the American Dream and stands it on its head, on members of her own family – notably her maternal grandparents, Leonard Newhouse and Sophie Marx Newhouse. It’s been documented that the constant discord surrounding the Marx and Hellman families inspired – or perhaps haunted – Hellman to the point that she felt compelled to write a play giving life to their fictional counterparts.

>>Set designer Lawrence Moten created one set to serve both scripts. The homes in both stories are old Southern dwellings. “The Little Foxes” is set in the late ’30s, but the Hubbards have had the same house for generations. “Appropriate” is set in 2014, but the Lafayettes have occupied the house for at least a century.Lisa Peterson, SCR’s “Little Foxes” director, said “the set needs to look elegant and rich in Hellman’s play but fall apart in Jacobs-Jenkins’, so the challenge (for Moten) was to find a way to design the house that put enough abstraction into the world that the audience could understand that it’s the same house – not literally, but metaphorically.”

Set in Alabama in the year 1900, “The Little Foxes” depicts the lives of the Hubbards, whose siblings are about to battle one another over the family’s fortunes. Brothers Ben and Oscar are in line for the lion’s share of their father’s vast fortune, but they need help from sister Regina, who hasn’t been given a second thought by their dad.

In “Appropriate,” Jenkins-Jacobs adopts (or, one could more accurately say, appropriates) a similar scenario. We’re in present-day Arkansas (or, at least, that of 2014). The patriarch of the Lafayettes has just passed, and his various relatives have congregated at the family plantation to prepare for the estate sale. But the various relatives have been estranged for ages, and all those past resentments, emotions, and the results of actions taken long ago begin to emerge, creating more obstacles to any kind of resolution.

The two plays are just similar enough that the idea of presenting them side by side makes sense – but just different enough that each has something to say that’s not found in the companion script.

Ivers notes that the artistic factors backing up this plan were and are compelling: “Both plays are brilliant. Neither has ever been produced at SCR. The playwrights are two incredibly important American voices separated by a generation. Both plays are dramaturgically exceptional and both revolve around a core family.”

Producing and presenting the shows in this manner, he said, is also a boon for patrons: “It’s a huge opportunity for audiences to experience – a chance to see two shows in true, old-fashioned repertory.”

Actor Shannon Cochran portrays the women driving the action in both plays – Regina in “The Little Foxes,” a role that’s been played by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis, and Toni in “Appropriate.” Cochran succinctly characterizes the essential differences of the plays: “If you’re a fan of film noir and potboilers, Hellman’s play sits firmly in that genre. ‘Appropriate’ is a mysteriously elevated human comedy.”

Ivers said the one-two punch of the two shows running simultaneously “does many things. One is that it puts into the DNA of the organization new ways of thinking about how we use resources and how we share with our audiences.”

The two plays, he said, “lift each other up, and the two are better together than either one separately.”

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Praise for What the Playwrights Hath Wrought

Lisa Peterson, SCR’s “Little Foxes” director, had only previously directed one of Hellman’s plays: the 2017-18 Guthrie Theater-Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production of “Watch on the Rhine.”

Peterson said that when contacted to direct it, she “had never read ‘Watch’ nor paid much attention to the work of Hellman.

“I felt woefully undereducated with her. When I first read it, I was stunned at how dynamic and Shavian it is, thinking that she reminds me of George Bernard Shaw. I’ve done a lot of Shaw.”

She says comparisons between Hellman and Shaw are numerous. “Both write ‘big idea’ plays that are somewhat dialectic, so they have a subject that has a moral center.” Hellman “puts characters up against each other who have very different ideas about what’s right and equalizes them so you can’t necessarily see which side she’s on – and that’s one of the things about Shaw. He does the same.

“Where Hellman is different is she’s great at writing stories. Plot is more important. Both ‘Watch on the Rhine’ and ‘The Little Foxes’ have the plotting of great thrillers – they have a scheme or plot that really engage the audience. She knows how to write a really engaging story.”

Everyone interviewed reports that strategies and schedules were crafted during initial staff and production meetings, at which point everyone went their separate ways to get to work. So once that occurred, did Peterson and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the director of “Appropriate,” do any further coordinating?

Lisa Peterson (left) and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg discuss the shows they’re directing at SCR – “The Little Foxes” (Peterson) and “Appropriate” (Turner Sonnenberg), which are being staged in repertory through Feb. 26. Credit: Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Brian Robin

Peterson said she and her counterpart “have interacted the whole way, and I definitely have in my mind all the time that this is only one-half of the experience we’re all trying to create.” She noted that the flow of the staging of “Appropriate” borrowing from “The Little Foxes” is more natural than the reverse “because there’s a natural chronology” (that is, Hellman’s play being set nearly a century before Jenkins-Jacobs’).

While Peterson might still be figuring out the intricacies of Hellman’s work, the director is no stranger to SCR audiences: This is her fifth time at the helm at SCR, having directed shows as far back as “Collected Stories” in 1996 and three shows since 2016, with “Aubergine” (from 2019) as the most recent.

In directing “Appropriate,” Turner Sonnenberg is making her SCR directorial debut. She praises the play as “really smart. It’s essentially a simple story about a family that’s coming together after the death of the patriarch. They’re dealing with the family inheritance and the family’s legacy.

“What’s really striking is that it’s funny. It’s gonna remind us of our own families, and people will see themselves in it. It’s fun, outrageous, and very American.”

Actor Cochran said that SCR pairing the plays in repertory creates “a cool combo. It’s a lot of theater to swallow. It’s kind of exciting, and a lot of people have their eyes on this.”

Ivers concurs, noting that “the logistics are huge.” He said full credit must be extended to everyone at SCR: “I owe so much to Paula (Tomei, SCR’s managing director) and our production manager (Maisie Chan) and shop, and all the artisans and craftspeople and our support staff. They are responsible for the dimensionalization of this project. Those are the unsung heroes.”

Reflecting the Continuing Issue of Race

Peterson reports that “one of the main reasons David Ivers decided to put these two side by side is – it’s a way to talk about race in America. The subject (of both plays) is white families whose inheritance is absolutely connected to the slave trade and the history of slavery in this country. It’s the primary thing they share.”

The director says, as if to underscore the point and what a sore spot it is for so many, the only Black characters in “The Little Foxes” are the two household servants. Peterson said the SCR production “tries very hard to put these two characters in the forefront as witnesses to white behavior that is familiar to us all, and to put a kind of a frame for watching, a point of view, and not just ‘this is a play about a family that happens to have a lot of servants.’ I might be thinking that even if I were not interacting with and working with Delicia.”

Turner Sonnenberg also reflects on the meaning of the play she’s directing: “What happens in the play (‘Appropriate’) is specific to this family (the Lafayettes), and then to the South, and then to America, and I hope it leads to conversations within the audience. What’s great about the play is how the characters navigate the truth, whether they deny or accept those things.”

That “truth” is, of course, the ongoing issue of race that has haunted nearly every aspect of American culture, society and politics for centuries.

Cochran, who stars in both plays, said, “I think audiences will see how in many ways that count we have not really come that far. We’re still struggling with issues of race and equality.”

Cochran said because it deals with those issues, it also deals with American capitalism, which skyrocketed because it was able to exploit generations of humans in bondage – millions of man hours of free labor that produced untold wealth.

The subject, she said, is as relevant now as it’s ever been, and it’s especially prevalent in “The Little Foxes”: “We’re now and have been in an ever-escalating period of love of capitalism, and that’s what this play is about – the very American obsession of capitalism and the goodness of it. The Hubbards (of ‘Foxes’) are just this Southern microcosm of that desire.”

What It Means for Patrons

Turner Sonnenberg exults in the artistry SCR’s ambitious project has generated. “What’s extraordinary to me is watching the six actors who are in both casts navigate two three-act plays and give each 100%. It’s just amazing. I feel the same excitement I felt when I was a young theater student.” 

Said Cochran: “The something that is so great about all of this is that SCR is doing two large-scale pieces in a world where, of late, very few theaters have attempted to do this.

“Both plays are harkening back to the glory of regional theaters, but this is also a beacon of what lies out there for us if we stay the course that strives to make theater a more inclusive place. The size of the project is also a statement that SCR is trying to make to the country.”

Ivers sums up the entire endeavor: “It really is a theater-lover’s feast.”

Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at emarchesewriter25@gmail.com.

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