Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
“Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.”
Chapter 2, Verse 15 of the Song of Solomon in the King James version of the Bible
Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play, ostensibly drawing characters from her own family, has been a theater staple since its first outing. In New York, the role of Regina which originated with Talullah Bankhead has been played by such as Anne Bancroft and Elizabeth Taylor while Margaret Leighton, Maureen Sullivan, and Frances Conroy have counted among those featured as Birdie. This Manhattan Theatre Club production allows its leading ladies to play Regina and Birdie in repertory. One can choose whom to see in which role.
Laura Linney, Darren Goldstein
Keeping with 1900s Southern tradition, brothers Oscar (Darren Goldstein) and Ben Hubbard (a well grounded Michael McKean) inherited their father’s cotton business to the chagrin of sister Regina (Laura Linney). The two men are pompously nouveau riche, while she has to make due with being supported in less than the style to which she aspires by manipulated husband Horace Giddens (completely credible Richard Thomas), currently in a sanatorium.
Also enmeshed is Oscar’s sweet, alcoholic wife Birdie (Cynthia Nixon), married for inheritance and ancestry, so cowed she refers to herself as a “ninny,” his lazy, doltish son Leo (Michael Benz) superfluously employed by the bank, and Regina’s overprotected daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), a daddy’s girl who the Hubbards plan to marry off to Leo.
A business opportunity to enlarge holdings and walk off with sizeable annuity emerges with the potential collaboration of northerner Mr. Marshall (David Alford – appealingly decorous). While Oscar and Ben have ready funds, Regina must secure her investment from the estranged husband she hasn’t even visited for five months. Feigning affection, this latter day Lucrezia Borgia immediately sends Alexandra to fetch the invalid. Horace, however, despite or perhaps because he’s learned his prognosis is fatal, is no longer the patsy she remembers. How will the Hubbard brothers keep this windfall in the family? How will Regina secure her own ambitious future? Each acts for him/her self.
Richard Thomas, Michael McKean, Darren Goldstein, Michael Benz
Laura Linney’s Regina makes southern gentility organic without losing the character’s edge. Imperiousness fits like a bespoke glove, avarice is palpable. So much emotion is internalized, however, one misses flashes – a moment of sheer hatred during blazing discourse with Horace, a moment of fear when at last Alexandra denies her.
Cynthia Nixon inhabits Birdie from the moment she enthusiastically flutters onstage. She’s vulnerable, wary, resigned, hopeful, hurt and desperate. Every warble in her voice and skittery move embodies Birdie. We can practically feel the tightness in her chest. All together splendid.
Francesca Carpanini, Richard Thomas
Director Daniel Sullivan excels at this kind of solid drama. His characters exist naturally and, for the most part, distinctively. Oscar is fidgety, Ben blustery and overconfident, Regina steely and graceful, Birdie like a trapped rabbit. Leo and Alexandra could use some individual attributes. Confrontations between Oscar and Birdie are superb as are moments of those between Regina and Horace. The stage is well and attractively used.
Unless I missed something, there’s an omission: Horace knocks over his medicine before heading for the stairs. We never see it observed, questioned, or cleaned up. There are paramount reasons for all three.
Scott Pask’s gracious turn of the century mansion is apt environs for this play. The ceiling is splendid. Jane Greenwood’s Costumes are flattering and character appropriate. Accents, it should be noted, sound authentic.
Also featuring Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie and Charles Turner as Cal- the Giddins’ servants
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon
Lillian Hellman’s drama about a Southern family motivated by secrets, lies, abuse, and greed comes alive at Arena Stage with a stellar cast deftly directed by Kyle Donnelly. The setting is Alabama in 1900, a state still recovering from the Civil War. Addie (Kim James Bey) and Cal (David Emerson Toney), no longer slaves, are still servants in the Giddens household. (And truly the only ones with any sense of right and wrong.) Regina Hubbard Giddens (Marg Helgenberger) seems to dominate the family, but she’s frustrated with her financial situation. In the early 20th century, only sons were considered heirs. So Regina seethes watching her brothers Benjamin (Edward Gero) and Oscar (Gregory Linington) enjoy the family’s wealth while she remains dependent on her husband, Horace (Jack Willis).
Hellman’s play holds up surprisingly well with themes that continue to resonate, particularly during this election year. The Little Foxes is part of Arena’s Lillian Hellman Festival. Watch on the Rhine, starring Marsha Mason, will be produced later in the season. There will also be staged readings, film screenings, and panel discussions to explore Hellman’s body of work.
Megan Graves and Kim James Bey
Superficially, the Giddens home has all the trappings of affluence and stability, the stage setting reflecting a more than comfortable existence for the family. (Set design, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; lighting, Nancy Schertler). Around the elegantly set dining room table, Regina plays hostess entertaining her brothers, Oscar’s wife, Birdie (Isabel Keating), and their son, Leo (Stanton Nash). But tensions roil underneath that cordial surface. Regina, who married Horace for his money, is disappointed that the match has not provided her with the financial freedom she desires. Oscar is dismissive and abusive of Birdie who self-medicates with alcohol. The Giddens daughter, Alexandra, called Zan (Megan Graves), adores her father, Horace, who has been away getting treatment for a serious heart condition. Largely ignored by Regina, Zan is taken under Birdie’s wing and watched over by Addie.
Gregory Linington, Edward Gero, and Stanton Nash
Benjamin and Oscar are out to increase their wealth by investing in a cotton mill. They need $75,000 and want Regina to ask Horace for the money. Horace has already given the brothers a thumbs down. (Oscar’s other plan for obtaining the money, to have Leo marry Alexandra, also is rejected by Horace.) So Leo, who works at the bank, steals Horace’s railroad bonds from a safety deposit box. Regina’s scheme to blackmail her brothers about the theft for a percentage of the mill is thwarted by Horace. Regina succeeds in the end, finally achieving financial independence, but at a huge cost.
Isabel Keating and Marg Helgenberger
As Regina, Helgenberger is a force to be reckoned with. Everything about her, from her strict posture to her steely gaze, sends the message that she is determined to succeed. There’s no evidence of the warm and helpful Catherine Willows from CSI. When she speaks, those honeyed southern tones are tinged with vinegar. The contrast with her daughter, Zan, is striking. Graves projects a youthful innocence in the first act, but by the end of the play, we witness her transformation, rejecting her mother’s values and ready to stand on her own. Even at this point, Regina can’t help but damn her daughter with faint praise. “Why Alexandra! You have spirit after all. I used to think you were all sugar water.”
Jack Willis, Marg Helgenberger, and Isabel Keating
Horace doesn’t appear until Act II, but when Willis enters, the effect is immediate. Moving slowly with a wooden walker, Willis’ Horace nonetheless is a powerful presence. There’s a touching moment between Horace, Birdie, Zan, and Addie, the four most likable characters in the household and in the play. They are comfortable with each other, their fondness and respect for Horace evident. Birdie, who overindulges in the elderberry wine served by Addie, has a laughing fit where she confesses she dislikes her son, Leo. (Keating’s performance here, and really throughout the play, is remarkable.) Horace’s medical condition adds to his concern for the three women and his worry that he won’t be around to protect them much longer. But he does what he can, telling Addie that he has left her $2,700, and revising his will to take care of Zan.
In contrast, Regina, never the doting wife, is not happy to have him home, and becomes further agitated when she discovers what he plans to do about the stolen bonds. She holds back nothing, telling Horace how much she despises him. And when he suffers a heart attack, she refuses to go upstairs to get his medication. He makes an attempt to climb the stairs, but collapses before he reaches the top. (The clever set, which includes a winding staircase, allows us to witness Horace’s futile climb.)
There are no real winners in the end. That quest for wealth and power at the expense of others always takes a toll. “Maybe it’s easy for the dying to be honest,” Horace tells Regina. “You’ll wreck the country, you and your kind, if they let you. But not me, I’ll die my own way, and I’ll do it without making the world worse. I’ll leave that to you.”
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 Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW 202-488-3300