By: Paulanne Simmons
It’s an old play. And it could have been written yesterday. Lillian Hellman penned The Little Foxes in 1939. Set in a small town in Alabama in 1900, it chronicles the struggles of the avaricious Hubbards over who will control the family business. They are ruthless, deceitful and conniving. They know they will inherit the earth. And if you look around today, you may be convinced they are right.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s decision to revive the play under the brilliant direction of Daniel Sullivan is in itself commendable. But what’s even better is their gathering of a superb cast and creative team to bring this revival into spectacular life.
And to top it off, the production allows Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney to alternate in the roles of the defeated southern belle, Birdie; and her sister-in-law, the vicious Regina Giddens.
It would be wonderful to see Linney and Nixon in both parts, but having only seen Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie, I can merely report that the two seem to be made for these roles.
Linney gives Regina a certain charm that surrounds her stony heart like a silk glove covers sharp claws. Yet she makes it clear Regina, too, is a victim. Her less talented, much duller brothers have inherited the business. In some ways she’s merely fighting for survival.
Nixon makes Birdie an object of pity but never ridicule. When Birdie confesses that she spends her days drinking in her bedroom, there’s both defiance and despair in her voice. That same scene provides some of the most poignant moments one can ever expect to see onstage.
Although Regina and Birdie are the roles everyone will be talking about. Regina’s husband, Horace (Richard Thomas) is the character at the center of the conflict. Try as she might Regina cannot convince him to join his brothers-in-law in a partnership with a Chicago businessman who wants to build a cotton mill near the their cotton plantation.
Thomas displays a fine strength of character in high contrast to his weakened body. His resistance might take on the aura of a heroic last stand without the nice touch of sarcasm and evil wit Thomas gives Horace. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a better executed death scene than his final climb up the curving staircase.
Scott Pask has given the Hubbards a stately old southern mansion in which to carry out their machinations, and Jane Greenwood has dressed the men in impeccable suits to signify their authority. Regina is imperious in her long sweeping skirts. Birdie is vulnerable in her pastels and lace.
The Little Foxes gets its title from the Song of Solomon: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” Solomon seems to be saying that love can only flourish when evil has been banished. He knew what he was talking about. And so did Hellman.
The Little Foxes *****
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47 Street
Through July 16, 2017