The Indie release, The Little Hours, coming out on June 30, takes place in a medieval convent where a young, runaway, servant (Dave Franco) takes refuge. The early buzz on the film has been good and it will be joining a cinematic tradition of nuns and convent life on screen.
The Bells of Saint Mary’s (1945) Directed by Leo Carey (The Awful Truth, An Affair to Remember), starring screen legends Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman as respectively a priest and nun who despite a good-hearted rivalry work together to save an inner city school. It was a massive commercial success grossing over $8 million on its initial run making it the highest grossing movie of 1945 and the most profitable film in the history of RKO. It also won the Academy Award for Best Sound Recording and was nominated for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director.
Agnes of God (1985) Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, and Moonstruck) directed this mystery drama based on the stage play of the same name. Young novice Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) is found directly after giving birth with a dead infant she insists was the result of a virgin conception. Psychiatrist Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) is assigned to assess Agnes’s state of mind and she quickly comes to clash with Mother Superior Miriam (Anne Bancroft). Tilly won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and was also nominated for an Academy Award in the category as well.
Sister Act (1992) Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing) directed this American musical comedy. Whoopi Goldberg stars as Deloris a Reno lounge singer who sees her married mobster lover shoot a guy. The local police decide the safest place for her is to hide her in a convent in San Francisco under the alias of Sister Mary Clarence. ‘Sister Mary’ soon becomes choir director and begins turning things upside down in the parish as her ex-flame seeks high and low to find her. It was a huge box office smash grossing over $200 million worldwide on a $30 million budget and generally well received by critics.
Dead Man Walking (1995) Tim Robbins directed and adapted the screenplay for this movie from the non-fiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean who has worked as a spiritual counselor to death row prisoners. Susan Sarandon stars as Sister Helen in a role that won her an Oscar and Sean Penn gives an astonishing performance as unrepentant killer Matthew Poncelot. The movie holds a current fresh rating of 95% from Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Song.
The Madgalene Sisters (2002) Peter Mullan wrote and directed this heart-breaking and infuriating Irish-British drama about three teenage girls sent to the Magdalene Asylums (otherwise known as Magdalene laundries) for ‘fallen women.’ The cast includes Anne-Marie Duff (The Virgin Queen, Suffragette) as young heroine Margaret and five time Olivier Award nominee Geraldine McEwan as the evil Sister Bridget. The characters themselves are composites, but their stories horrifically are quite real. It was one of the biggest commercial successes in Ireland that year, won the Golden Lion at Venice, and holds a 90% fresh rating on the Tomatometer.
Lillian Hellman’s play, The Little Foxes, first premiered on Broadway in 1939, followed by a film in 1941. Tallulah Bankhead played the Hubbard family matriarch, Regina, on stage, with Bette Davis assuming that role on the big screen. The play has been revived on Broadway three times, with Anne Bancroft (1967), Elizabeth Taylor (1981), and Stockard Channing (1997) playing Regina. The Little Foxes will run from September 23 through October 30 at Arena Stage with Marg Helgenberger as Regina.
Since it’s been nearly ten years since the last Broadway revival, why now? “I think what this play has to say about women – powerful women – it’s incredibly timely, especially considering the election cycle that we are in,” said Megan Graves who plays Regina’s daughter, Alexandra, known as Zan. “Certainly, perspectives on women in 1900 [the time period of the play] are different, but in many ways, unfortunately, they are not. I think it’s surprisingly relevant.”
The Little Foxes centers on the very Southern Hubbard family: Regina; her husband, Horace; her two brothers, Benjamin and Oscar; Oscar’s wife, Birdie; and Zan. Hellman apparently based the characters on relatives from her mother’s family. In the early 20th century, only sons were considered legal heirs. Regina wants financial freedom and she will stop at nothing to obtain that independence. “The stakes in this play are very high, and the lengths that the characters will go to achieve their goals are a little scary,” said Megan. “I, for one, see that in D.C. politics, and so these characters, particularly Regina, but also her two brothers, Oscar and Ben, are very recognizable at any time in Washington. There’s a lot of humanity underneath this grasping for power, but at a certain point the emotional depth becomes subverted.”
Zan becomes the moral core of the play. “Alexandra is 17 and she’s trying to find who she is in the maelstrom of family dysfunction,” Megan said. “She becomes caught between her mother and her father who have opposing ideas about what should happen with the family business and to the family itself. And in the end she makes a choice for her own future that also means rejecting a lot of who she has been up to that point.”
Megan said that she read Hellman’s The Children’s Hour in college, but wasn’t as familiar with The Little Foxes. “I didn’t realize until I auditioned how autobiographical [the play] was,” she said. “We have a great dramaturgical team helping us and the information they are giving us is so incredibly informative. I was able to read interviews that Lillian Hellman gave about the play, what she intended, and what audiences take from the play and how those two things aren’t always in synch. I found that fascinating.”
The mother-daughter relationship is an important theme in the play. “Alexandra really craves her mother’s affection and approval,” Megan said. “The tricky thing is that she also has a very strong sense of right and wrong and at a certain point trying to please her mother and trying to do what’s right aren’t one and the same any more. So there’s a huge conflict for her when she has to choose between what she sees as doing the right thing and doing what her mother asks. That’s what really starts the journey towards growing up.”
Megan was born in Mesa, Arizona, just outside of Phoenix. Homeschooled through high school, she received her BFA from the Shenandoah Conservatory, in Winchester, Virginia. After enjoying Shakespeare in high school, Megan thought she would become a writer. That all changed in college when she began doing local theater in northern Virginia.
She has become a familiar presence for theatergoers in the D.C. area, having appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Folger Theatre, Passion Play and Clementine in the Lower 9 at Forum Theatre, and several productions at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, including The BFG, winning a Helen Hayes Award.
Does she have a favorite? “That’s tough,” she said. “I had a great time doing Midsummer NIght’s Dream at Folger this spring. That was just a lovely group of people and a really joyful interpretation of the play that was just so refreshing and wonderful to do every night. I have to say I have a very warm place in my heart for Passion Play which I did at Forum Theater last year. That was probably the production that has changed how I look at theater.”
Megan said she feels lucky to be part of the cast for Arena’s production. “It’s like a master class in the rehearsals every day,” she said. “Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m in the scene; I can’t just watch. It’s so incredible.”
She feels very fortunate to be working with Helgenberger (above), who won an Emmy Award for playing K.C. Koloski in China Beach, which ran on ABC from 1988 to 1991, and is most identified with her long-running role as Catherine Willows on CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Helgenberger’s film credits include Erin Brockovich.
Helgenberger, Maegan said, “is lovely; she’s so giving and kind. We’ve had some good conversations about what the relationship is like [between Regina and Zan] and she’s game to try things. I was amazed at how transformative she is. She’s Regina. She has really taken this role on. The only thing I think about when I watch her work is how thoroughly she has stepped into this piece.”
Stepping into the characters also involves stepping into the dresses that women wore during the play’s time period. “There’s something about being laced into a corset that immediately transports you to the time,” she said. “I can’t slouch anymore; that 20-something slouching girl is gone and I have this incredible posture. It informs the character so much and layer on top of that the beautiful clothes that our designer [Jess Goldstein], unveils, it really helps to make the character come to life. l can’t wait to get all the costumes and get on stage and work with all of that.”
Megan hopes that the play’s themes will resonate with audiences, particularly through her character, Zan. “This play is really about power – who has it, who is trying to get it – manifested through wealth,” she said. “Those who decide in the end to reject that, is a commentary on the choices that people make. In the play there’s a statement about family versus power and choosing one or the other. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of neutral ground at least in this play as far as maintaining that control and also maintaining that family bond. For some it’s simple and for others like Zan, it’s very complicated.”
The Little Foxes
Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Kyle Donnelly
1101 Sixth Street SW
Marg Helgenberger Photo © Tony Powell