There are two styles of drama going on in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, or at least there are in the Richmond Hill Players' current production of it: domestic and melo-. A prequel of sorts to the author's more widely known The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest features, as its central figure, patriarch Marcus Hubbard (Stan Weimer), the richest man in Bowden, Alabama, circa 1880. A cruel, conniving, even murderous despot, Marcus is universally reviled, especially by his children - Benjamin (James V. Driscoll), Oscar (Steve Mroz), and Regina (Keri Cousins) - all of whom, for reasons of their own, want their hands on the family fortune.

It takes a while for this to be established, partly because Hellman's exposition is so protracted, and partly because the actors don't seem fully committed to their characters' darker sides. They seem, at worst, mildly devious, and the performers' apparent uncertainty about just how self-serving their characters should be makes the nature of their relationships and much of the dialogue confusing; I'd say it takes a full half-hour before the show finds its footing. (The rustling of programs is always a pretty fair indication that a show hasn't captured an audience's attention, and on Friday night at least, there was a lot of early rustling.)

Once the elements are in place for Marcus' eventual downfall, starting at a dinner party where the Hubbards and their neighbors begin hitting the old man up for money, Another Part of the Forest becomes bitchy, Southern-melodrama fun, and several actors begin to display a devilish confidence; Weimer and Driscoll are particularly fine, and Cousins knows how to let loose a mean left eyebrow. And in the minor role of Oscar's "fallen" girlfriend, Laurette, Candice Gregg is stunningly self-assured and polished; I, for one, kept waiting for her Act III return. (It never comes, damn it.) When the performers are going at their roles with gusto, Another Part of the Forest is terrifically enjoyable, and director Joe DePauw makes clever stage pictures based on the family dynamics.

But there's one crucial element of the production - Jackie Skiles' performance as Lavinia Hubbard - that I haven't yet discussed, for the simple reason that it sends Another Part of the Forest onto another plane entirely. When Skiles' clan matriarch is on stage, suddenly the family cat-fighting carries real weight, and even tragedy. Skiles plays this sad, shaking woman so astonishingly well that you can't take your eyes off her; I can't wait to see her performance as Mary Tyrone one day. With this character crumbling while the others play parlor games, the melodramatic and legitimately dramatic elements don't quite gel in this production of Another Part of the Forest, but it didn't bother me much; I was glad not to have missed any of them.

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