Lillian Hellman’s THE LITTLE FOXES, superbly staged in revival at Manhattan Theatre Club, is as satisfying as theatre gets. In this cautionary, intriguing tale of one woman’s greed and struggle for freedom, the setting is Alabama in 1900. Regina Hubbard Gibbons fights for control in a Hubbard family investment with her brothers, frustrated by opposition from her dying husband.
The reasons why this production is so successful are as straightforward as its key elements. First, Hellman’s 1939 drama is a model of structure: each character, completely realized, is in conflict with one or more other characters, and their external conflict springs from their own internal conflict. If this sounds like textbook rudiment, look around and try to observe how many plays observe this structure today. What’s more the story is propelled by what happens next. Basic unknowns like who gets the money, who’s double-crossing whom, results in the audience wanting to come back for the next act. Yes, fellow playgoer, they don’t write many plays like this anymore.
Second, the direction by Daniel Sullivan is as direct and straightforward as the playwriting itself. Confident with story and players, there’s no need or occasion to re-interpret a great play or “discover” pretentious subtext.
Third, the cast is superb. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon exchange the roles of Regina and her sister-in-law Birdie. In the performance I saw Nixon played Birdie, whose monologue in Act 3, where she takes her character from chirpy melancholy to drunken regret pleading for “just one day of happiness” is mesmerizing. Laura Linney’s performance as Regina, played with grand (not grandstanding), stylized cunning and cruelty is so terrifying, it’s breathtaking. Kudos to the all the supporting cast, especially Richard Thomas as dying husband Horace.
Fourth, Hellman’s themes are timeless. THE LITTLE FOXES is about not only avarice but also freedom. Hellman knew her society and her sex. Having grown up in the South and as a socialist, there’s plenty in LITTLE FOXES that alludes to man’s exploitation of man (the huge profits from the Hubbard’s prospective investment is on the back of cheap labor from poor whites and former slaves, both). As a woman, Hellman’s Regina, denied equality with her brothers, is reduced to playing their game lower than they. Her only crime is that she wasn’t born with a penis. Sadly, LITTLE FOXES resonates thematically today, but narrative prevails, theme is implied.
Finally, the production design is authentic: there’s nothing abstract or metaphoric about it. Scott Pask‘s set puts us in the drawing rooms of an anti-Bellum mansion, with real period detail and furnishings. Costumes by Jane Greenwood are richly detailed: the gowns for Regina and Birdie are a witty contrast of severe and flowery, aggressive and passive, and bad and good. (Had I mentioned I really like it when conflict is concrete?) Versatile lighting designer Justin Townsend (last year’s American Psycho and The Humans) washes the set in whitish, chilly light. Particularly arresting is when Addie the maid, opens the blinds on a December morning. Winter light spills-in, illuminating strife, imparting no warmth - a sublime touch to a superb production.
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