Lillian Hellman’s 1939 classic, “The Little Foxes,” maintains its vaunted sting in its latest Manhattan Theatre Club revival, thanks to the brilliance of the play itself, an outstanding cast and taut direction by Daniel Sullivan that captures the escalating portrait of family greed. Although set in 1900 in a small southern town, the machinations that come to a searing climax could just as well be taking place today.
A casting gimmick is a highlight of this production. Two extraordinary actresses, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, are alternating roles. Linney plays the conniving central figure Regina Giddens at some performances, with Nixon as the unhappy, alcoholic and pitiable Birdie Hubbard. On other occasions Nixon becomes Regina and Linney is Birdie.
At the performance I chose to see Linney was Regina and Nixon Birdie. Both acting turns were terrific. Linney embodies the nuances of a woman who long felt denied her dreams and resented subservience to her brothers who inherited from their father, leaving her out. We may feel for her some at the outset, but by the time events explode, we see her as a nasty piece of work who deserves the rejection she gets from her daughter and the lonely life projected for her despite her outsmarting her thieving brothers to financially dominate a new enterprise.
Nixon projects a dreamlike state for the abused Birdie, whose husband married her for family money and mistreats her. She drinks steadily as a crutch while still nursing dreams of what she hoped her life would be like. Hellman has given Birdie a mighty scene in which all of her pain rushes to the surface and Nixon makes us feel deeply for this lost soul.
Richard Thomas is outstanding as Horace Giddens, the fatally ill husband of Regina, who has long detested him. His return home from treatment for a heart condition leads to a sizzling, horrific scene that illustrates Regina’s ultimate callousness.
The rest of the cast is very polished, making the characters totally believable, and Scott Pask has designed an impressive, in-depth mansion set that is an appropriate arena for the family battling. Jane Greenwood’s costume design augments the period look.
Hellman was a very strong writer. “The Little Foxes” demonstrates her ability to carefully construct a play and create life-like characters, as well as address an issue, in this case showing what monetary greed can do to a family. In various incarnations the role of Regina has attracted such actresses as Tallulah Bankhead (she did the role on Broadway originally), Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Bancroft and Stockard Channing.
On the night I went, sitting at my right was a young woman who had never seen the play. She was duly impressed, and that underscores why this revival has the important function of introducing Hellman’s strength as a playwright to newcomers as well as offering a fresh view to those of us who have seen earlier productions. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Reviewed April 21, 2017.