By Lillian Hellman; Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
Runs through 7.2.17
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
by Ran Xia on 5.1.17
Cynthia Nixon as Regina, and Laura Linney as Birdie, in The Little Foxes. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: Lillian Hellman's intricate play, although set in a bygone era, reflects shockingly relevant issues, and elaborates a spectrum of female characters in a cruel and conniving business world.
In this day and age, the theatre community is often at the forefront of being politically engaged. Sentimental plays about a bygone era simply don't (or shouldn't) cut it anymore. Sure, this revival of The Little Foxes has some big names: director Daniel Sullivan (Good People) and leading ladies Laura Linney (Time Stands Still) and Cynthia Nixon (W;t). Yet one could be forgiven for thinking this play—about a rich white southern family with black servants at the turn of the 20th century—would not at all be relevant to contemporary issues.
And one would be wrong.
Set in a small town in Alabama in 1900, The Little Foxes follows a family's struggle over controlling a lucrative business, a cotton mill they plan to construct. We're introduced to the matriarch of the house Regina Giddens (née Hubbard), a collected and almost menacing presence performed superbly by Cynthia Nixon: even her dress makes you think of Maleficent. Regina's husband Horace, we soon find out, is terminally ill with heart disease and has been away getting treatments in Baltimore. The play begins as the Hubbard siblings (Ben, Oscar, and Regina) gather In the tastefully decorated GIddens house, about to strike the deal of a lifetime. The dialogue is often markedly less tasteful, however: misogyny is alive and well in the Hubbard/Giddens household, and the N-word gets dropped around at an uncomfortable rate. After all, the pair of Hubbard brothers are known for their ruthlessness. Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein) might as well be the illustration for "chauvinist" in the Oxford Dictionary, while Oscar's son Leo (Michael Benz), with a penchant for dishonesty, is the next generation of greedy businessman in the making.
Of course, the true protagonists of Hellman's complex play are the women. We witness how they navigate and cope in a patriarchal world: Regina is the equal opponent in this chess game of connivance, and is constantly looking for opportunities to one-up the men, with a will like that of Lady Macbeth. She knows exactly what she wants, and she shows you how she'll never back down until she gets it. The polar opposite of Regina is Birdie Hubbard (Laura Linney), Oscar's wife and Regina's sister-in-law. Birdie is the submissive wife who takes her husband's gas-lighting and violence all in, and pretends that everything's fine. She sustains her sanity with the memories of a better time, her love for her niece Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), and mostly drinking. 17-year-old Alexandra starts off a pawn in the game. An unassuming embodiment of innocence, she gets manipulated by her mother to bring Horace home so that Regina can invest her husband's money. And when Horace shocks everyone by refusing to be a part of the deal, all pretense of phony politeness and masquerade of love gets peeled off, and greed rears its ugly head. A power play of sizzling plots between the siblings ensue, as things spiral into maniacal.
One of the interesting things about this production is that Linney and Nixon alternate their roles as Regina and Birdie. From a promotional video of the dynamic duo playing the same scene in either part, it appears that Linney's Regina recalls more of a Tennessee Williams-esque Southern mother, while Nixon gives off more of a Medea / femme-fatale vibe. The duality of strength and vulnerability co-exist in both characters, making them highly relatable and sympathetic, even when they are flawed and have done inexcusable things.
The title of The Little Foxes comes from Song of Solomon in King James' Bible: "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes." And in a sobering moment, Alexandra points out the same, quoting the family servant Addie (Caroline Stephanie Clay) who says that "there were people who ate the earth and those that stood around and watched them do it." The familial war over power, fueled by unquenchable greed, proves to be an education for the young girl, which propels her to ultimately break free from her family.
The power of The Little Foxes is not how good it is as a disturbing period piece, but rather, how readily familiar and accurate it is as a mirror of the present. The inconvenient truth is that everything in The Little Foxes is not a thing of the past, and after more than 100 years, the struggle continues as men (and women) in power crush the less fortunate under their boots. Luckily, the point of the play is that Alexandra bears witness to it all, and the horror of her reality will strengthen her to be a better warrior than her assimilated mother and piteous aunt. As for a twenty-first-century audience, it's easy to recognize the characters who are the epitome of cruelty in certain tyrants or business tycoons who have built their empires with the blood and sweat of thousands. It's sadly a tale as old as time, but then again, sadness and anger fuel the spirit of rebellion as much as greed fuels evil, and we can already smell a change in the air when Alexandra recognizes her mother's fear.
The Little Foxes is possibly the most relevant and timeless revival of a play from an era we never intended to go back to. It will make you uncomfortable, for it tackles issues that are shockingly familiar today. And even more importantly, it goes beyond showing you the ugly truth, and ultimately instills you with hope.
(The Little Foxes plays at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, through July 2, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 35 minutes with two intermissions. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. This calendar has been color-coded to indicate how Linney and Nixon's roles will alternate. Tickets are $70 - $150 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more information visit littlefoxesbroadway.com.)
The Little Foxes is by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set Design is by Scott Pask. Costume Design is by Jane Greenwood. Lighting Design is by Justin Townsend. Sound Design is by Fitz Patton. Hair & Wig Design is by Tom Watson. Make-Up Design is by Tommy Kurzman. Fight Director is Thomas Schall. Dialect Coach is Deborah Hecht. Production Stage Manager is Roy Harris.
The cast is Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon, Darren Goldstein, Michael McKean, Richard Thomas, David Alford, Michael Benz, Francesca Carpanini, Caroline Stefanie Clay, and Charles Turner.