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Interview: the Classic Theatre’s Kelly Hilliard Roush

The Classic Theatre is closing its 12th season with a production of Lillian Hellman’s legendary The Little Foxes. Set in a small Southern town at the dawn of the twentieth century, it tells the story of a predatory family at war with itself.

Kelly Hilliard Roush, the Classic’s executive and artistic director, is playing Regina Giddens, a role inhabited by such notable luminaries as Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and, most recently, Laura Linney. We sat down with Ms. Roush to talk about the play and what to expect from the Classic next season.

Kelly Hilliard Roush as Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes at the Classic Theater (Siggi Ragnar).

Is this your first time with a Hellman play or this piece?

This is my first time with this piece. I was introduced to Hellman in college. We were doing scenes from The Children’s Hour. I’d always heard of The Little Foxes, but I hadn’t read it until last year. I was so grateful to the people who brought it to me and said, “This is something you should really look at.” It’s a great play!

And the footsteps you’re following in…

Yes! There are some serious footsteps. And one of the interesting things for me to be able to work on the play is (Southern accent) my daddy’s from Alabama. This, for me, is very much like going back and visiting his family.

My aunt still lives there, so by just hearing her and reading the play, I get the cadence. I know some of these conversations from having grown up around them. And some of the things they say to young women and women in general really resonate.

There’s a lot of women wanting their own voice. They’re pushing harder but still playing the game, and some of them have given up. They let the men do the taking, and they are sublimated from society. I grew up watching women in the South and wondered why certain choices were made.

I could argue all day long about Regina’s character and why she makes the choices she does. I love my character. She’s complicated!

So what’s your interpretation of her?

She’s very much a woman who is smart and business-savvy, but nobody will look at her twice. Nobody will give her credit because she’s a girl. They just write her off. We tend to do that with family. It’s so easy for family members not to see all the facets.

I think Regina is a very smart businesswoman, with aspects that would have been lauded in a man, and were lauded in her brothers. But when you listen to the play, she’s being told, “Mama told you to smile. Mama told you to be soft and look nice.” But what if I’m a better businessman than my brother? It makes her crazy because he’s an idiot and she could have done it better! But nobody listens to her…and they underestimate her.

That’s a theme that’s been touched on before here at the Classic.

Yes, it’s certainly timely. That’s something that resonates with me. Finding your voice…giving voice to the unheard. And this season’s all about longing. Regina longs for material things. That’s important to her. She’s an entrepreneur. People aren’t necessarily her jam. She really feels like she hasn’t gotten her due.

All of a sudden this deal happens, and you’re going to have money! What are you going to do with it? But she realizes she’s not included in it. Regina’s husband is the one who needs to sign off on it. But she absolutely wants a seat at the table and to prove herself. She plays the game of being a woman with feminine wiles, but also smart in the way that men only think they’re smart to get what she wants. I admire the savvy. She has a great line — I have a great line — about some people having to finish what they start, without going back. She’s one of those people.

What’s the relevance of this piece for today’s audiences?

I was just reading our director’s notes and our dramaturge’s notes, and all we need to do to breathe life into it is to do it. Sometimes people think that breathing new life is to change the period. We made a deliberate choice to set A Doll’s House in the Madmen 1950s. There, we could stay true to the story but also open a door and let people see that it’s not just a period piece.

With The Little Foxes, we all looked at it and the director said, “I really think that keeping it in period is important.” It’s amazing to look at this time capsule and realize the issues we’re still having with gender, race and class. We’d go into rehearsal and say, “Oh, my God! People are still saying this stuff on CNN and CBS. They’re just not wearing the same costumes!”  This one really speaks to to what’s going on now.

The director. This is a name I haven’t heard before.

Yes, Melissa Utley. She lives in San Antonio. She got her directing degree from Texas State, but she’s done a lot of work in Austin. I knew she was here and heard great things about her work, so I reached out to her last year and asked if she was interested. Coincidentally, she had done a lot of work around Lillian Hellman already. It was just the right time to work together.

It’s been exciting because as the executive and artistic director [of the Classic], I’ve been interested in deepening our relationships. This was a real opportunity to bring in someone new and continue that growth. Adding another voice, especially a young female voice has been nice, because there’s not a lot of female directors in San Antonio. Melissa is smart and funny and very keen with her directing. It’s been really great to have her on board.

What about the rest of the cast?

I am so grateful to work with this group of people. Over the past 11 seasons, audiences will have seen everyone that’s in this play at least once. We have one of our original founders, Tony Ciaravino. He plays one of the brothers. Byrd Bonner — he was in You Can’t Take it With You. Hunter Wulff, Alyx Gonzales. It’s a cast I’m honored to be with. They’re professional and talented, and everyone works so hard.

John O’Neill was my high school professor and he’s playing my husband in this. We did one show together, my very first professional show, so to be onstage again together after so many years is pretty special. Christi Eanes has also been on our stage. She went to Madison and I went to Roosevelt, and we used to share a bus going to drama competitions, but had never been onstage together before.

I’m getting to be onstage with a lot of people I haven’t gotten to be onstage with before. People I admire and I love working with.

Tell us a bit about what to expect next season.

I’m so excited about it. The theme is “The Ties That Bind.” Speaking of the family stuff, sometimes those ties hold us so close that we feel chafing. As I was reading plays and having conversations with other artistic directors, the plays that were really popping for me were about how we have conversations. How do we acknowledge each other in a respectful way? And with family, that’s where it can really go awry. Or you find a way to understand someone who’s really different than you. Since you’re related, so you have to learn to get along.

We’re committed to doing Shakespeare every year now. It’s big, it’s expensive and it’s hard. But it’s exciting! With Romeo and Juliet, you have these two families who can’t talk to each other. With so much hate, it tears them apart. Then later in the season there’s Our Town, with these two young people want to get married and the whole town comes around them. You see how that attitude can affect people differently — to come together as a community and be loving.

We’re setting Romeo and Juliet in Texas, at the border, so there’s going to be a border wall (laughs). So welcome to the party! You have two young people who only see each other’s hearts but there’s a longstanding family feud. Then we’re going back to Miss Bennett, which also deals with a family that drives itself crazy and how they get through it. In February, we have Anna in the Tropics, which is very exciting. Set in Miami, it has an all-Latino cast, and we’re talking about family here, too.

We’re setting Our Town in San Antonio. We’re not changing language, but we very much want it to reflect that who you see onstage is someone you could see anywhere around town. Then, we’ve got Brighton Beach Memoirs, the Neil Simon play set in the ‘40s, with another family dealing with their issues.

Hopefully, this season will prompt honest conversations about prejudices and differences that get in our way and what makes us better when we can embrace those differences— even when it makes us crazy.

The Little Foxes plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. May 3 to 26 at the Classic Theater of San Antonio. 1924 Fredericksburg Road. Reservations can be made online or by calling the box office at (210) 589-8450.

Feature photo (l-r): Alyx Gonzales, John O’Neill, Byrd Bonner, Kelly Hilliard Roush, Anthony Ciaravino and Christi Eanes (Siggi Ragnar).

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