When Jaded Eyes Arts Collective announced they were doing a revival of The Fox by Allan Miller – the first since its debut at the Roundabout Theatre in 1982 – they promised “to bring to the stage a riveting exploration of powerful themes on male/female power dynamics, femininity, sexuality, and the complex relationship between our physical and mental desires.” I suspected that even if they could only half deliver, this production would be something worth experiencing – and after catching a flawless opening night performance I was not disappointed. Simply put, this production of The Fox delivers on their promise with absorbing performances, powerful direction by Jordan Dann and a nuanced production design.
Step into the Gene Frankel theatre and you immediately see how the tiny theatre has been attractively transformed. The scenic design by Kimie Nishikawa instantly evokes a down-home feeling; the ceiling is draped in netting and Spanish moss and a cozy living room, set off by a crackling fireplace, is lit indirectly by lamps and lanterns. It is an agreeable, old-fashioned room filled with books and other creature comforts. The music piping in, pre-show, is lilting, harmonious and welcoming – creating an ambiance of warmth and kindness. And while the home itself may be somewhat humble it is obviously filled with small protected treasures.
It is 1918 England and we soon find that this is the home of Jill Banford (Elizabeth Elkins) and Nellie March (Clea Straus Rivera) – two women whose relationship to each other isn’t immediately clear. What is clear is that this farmhouse is constantly on the brink of financial ruin, though the woman have done what they can to make their home a comfortable one. When we come upon them, Jill is nestled by the fire singing softly and accompanying herself on the auto harp while Nellie sits and paints detail work on a porcelain vase. It seems these woman are used to a more genteel way of life, and what brings them to the rigors of farming isn’t immediately clear. Soon enough we find that their motives lean more towards being left alone rather than any particular dreams of homesteading.
And so, not being particularly suited to it, life is a perpetual struggle. Money is a constant worry, Jill is nursing an aching shoulder even as Nellie spends endless hours a day tending to the tremendous physical demands of simply keeping up the farm. They are battling hens that won’t lay, a barn threatening to topple and – perhaps most menacing – a fox that poaches their best chickens. It’s enough to make Nellie cry out in her sleep, as she dreams of this animal that threatens – it seems- not only their hens but their happiness as well.
Cue Henry Grenfel (Matt Savins) – a soldier who interrupts the cozy evening by the fire in search of his grandfather and some lodging while he’s on one week’s military leave – fresh from Greece and soon off to Canada. This was Henry’s childhood home for a bit, and he’d lived here with his cantankerous and stern grandfather until he ran away as a teen. Now, back for a short respite, he finds nothing but the women, both of whom treat his unexpected intrusion quite differently.
Jill – ladylike, frail and demure - is a welcoming host. It’s obvious she’s yearning for company, a break in the routine and someone to fuss over. She jumps at the chance for a bit of conversation, some new energy in the house, and some interesting stories.
Nellie, on the other hand, (to belabor a farm metaphor) is used to being cock of the walk and quite literally wears the pants in the family. She doesn’t take kindly to a new alpha male bulldozing in and flooding their home with all his testosterone and vigor. At every turn she challenges him – or sees every offer of his help as a challenge. They virtually come to blows at the smallest of things.
Director Jordan Dann masterfully builds the growing tension of the play with a slow burn. Dann sets Henry up as a devious manipulator, whose duality seems both unintentionally ingrained – yet specifically called upon. When Henry is alone with each woman he sets up a completely unique dynamic with each and calls forth different aspects of his personality. Initially open and friendly with Jill, he is instead cunning and slightly dangerous with Nellie. When all three come together, the room is charged as every word is heavy with double meaning. It’s fascinating to see this master manipulator play each woman expertly.
Jill’s joy of having a house-guest soon sours when the excitement Henry brought with him wears thin. In the village she hears gossip of Henry which – coupled with some of his actions – leaves her with a growing aversion for him even as Nellie has now begun to warm to him. There’s a sly seduction that crackles between these two alphas – and what began as a battle to be the man of the house now has these two locked into each other in a brutal, sensual and emotionally explosive dependency. Henry begins to dominate Nellie with his passion – one so strong that it butts up against abusive smothering. He pursues her the way he hunts for his prey:
“I’ll tell you something, Nellie. A hunter, if he’s a real hunter, never just walks into a forest and says to an animal, ‘Please fall to my gun, beastie’ It’s a slower, subtler thing than that. When you bunt, you have to gather yourself to bring down what you’re out for. You have to coil everything you are, just as a snake does when he’s about to strike, and then you have to focus not just your eyes but your whole mind and soul on the thing you’re after, so it becomes like a fate. Your will against his. And then when you reach your true pitch, and you finally come into range, you don’t aim as you would at a bottle, or a can of chowder. It’s your will that carries the bullet through. It’s your will that brings the creature down. It has to be the will or you’ll never win. It’s whoever’s will is the weakest that’s the loser…! “
The words “You can’t refuse me” from his mouth are both a promise and a threat, and Nellie, caught up in this strange new whirlwind is both drawn to the force, as well seduced by the prospect of not having to be the caregiver anymore.
Jill and Nellie’s relationship is broadly painted and while mention of them sleeping together is often spoken of, any hint of sexuality between them seems to hover at the brink of -and go no further than – deep fondness and enduring affection rather than any erotic passion. Theirs is an emotional pairing, solidly built on – and maintained on – similar habits, interests, goals and dreams. They are a couple who has built a life together and therefore it doesn’t matter that their bedroom escapades often seem dominated by a hot water bottle and being hummed off to dreamland.In contrast, Henry offers Nellie a brutally sexual relationship clearly hinted at in the way he manhandles her, grabs at her, and causes her breath to quicken. She – so strong, sturdy and reliant when dealing with Jill – becomes almost quivering when Henry demands that they run off together. Savins and Rivera masterfully portray these two lovers, drawn together with such combustible force that all rationality and clear-headedness withers in the wake of their ultimately destructive inferno. Elkins does a marvelous job at portraying Jill who must stand by in confusion and is powerless to stop what she knows is a story that can only end in tragedy.
The Fox, originally a novella by D.H. Lawrence, is a story that ages well. In the hands of Jaded Eyes Arts Collective, this story is able to speak to an audience who isn’t so wide-eyed at the thought of two women abandoning society in order to go rogue and live a life together on their own terms. And therefore, some of the darker points are able to be coaxed out and played with: Henry’s complete domination of Nellie, the dance that flirts with BDSM before toppling over into abuse via manipulation, and the complete brute force and sexual subterfuge which Henry uses to whip his prey into a lather of confusion and submission.
The end of the play is stark and gripping; Elkins, Rivera and Savins hold the audience so tightly in a game of will that it is impossible to breath as you watch the final moments play out. At times devastating, as well as bold and brave, this production of The Fox builds to a climax that will leave you transfixed.
Written by Allan Miller
Adapted from the novella by D.H. Lawrence
Directed by Jordan Dann
The Gene Frankel Theatre
24 Bond Street
New York, NY 10012
Friday, July 18 @ 7:30p
Saturday, July 19 @ 2p and 7:30p
Wednesday, July 23 @ 7:30p
Thursday, July 24 @ 7:30p
Friday, July 25 @ 7:30p
Saturday, July 26 @ 2p and 7:30p