This post is about a MWC theater outing on Wednesday, May 3rd at 2pm to see THE LITTLE FOXES, the landmark play by one of America’s most revered playwrights, Lillian Hellman. Alternating the two main roles, actors Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon will have a chance to demonstrate their versatility as they will each play the diametrically polar characters, Regina Giddens and her innocent, dipsomaniac sister-in-law, Birdie. At this time it has not been announced which actress will be playing which role on the day of the performance we will be attending. Members, please go to the Sign-Up! tab on the Members’ site menu ribbon or directly to the Reservations/ Payment page.
Lady Macbeth, Nurse Ratched, Cruela De Vil are all included in the pantheon of truly evil and wicked female characters – but they have nothing on Lillian Hellman’s Regina Giddens. The LITTLE FOXES, set in Alabama in 1900, centers on a family business replete with competing financial interests, thwarted ambitions, sibling rivalries – typical issues in most family businesses! The major theme here is Regina’s desire for influence, wealth and freedom within the restrictive confines for women in that period and within her own family where her brothers are the only legal, and financially independent, heirs. Her abject financial dependence on her avaricious brothers, but also her kind-hearted husband, drives Regina to use whatever means her cunning intellect can devise to seize control of her life and future.
Hellman carefully crafted the twists and turns of THE LITTLE FOXES’ plot to put Regina’s malevolence into high relief. From Regina’s husband, to her daughter to her sister-in-law (Birdie, the other major female character), to her brothers – no one escapes unharmed from her quest for power. Murder (sort of) and blackmail are used alongside ruthless manipulation. Sounds rather grim, doesn’t it? So, why is this considered to be a classic work? Mostly because it illustrates the galling position of a strong-willed, driven woman in a “genteel” society chafing against her derived status. But it also gives actresses a grand opportunity to play a less than traditional – uh, wildly unsympathetic – female character. The fact that Regina could not be ambitious without also being evil is perhaps a question for our current era.
The scene-chewing actress to originate the role of Regina in 1939 was Tallulah Bankhead (before she became a caricature). But most people associate Regina Giddens with Bette Davis, who played her in the 1941 movie directed by William Wyler. Very few actresses conveyed intelligence as ably as Davis and with limpid-eyed Teresa Wright playing the sweet, not-all-there Birdie – it was a magnificent screen adaptation. Another Broadway production of THE LITTLE FOXES starred Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen Stapleton in 1981 and was Taylor’s well-received stage debut allowing her to channel her inner-Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Lillian Hellman was a giant literary talent from another period who is not now well known. She was a celebrity in the way that few literary personalities are today and was often quoted and commented upon from the 1930’s until her death in 1984. Her 30-year long relationship with Dashiell Hammett; her famous feuds (with Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Trilling and most famously with Mary McCarthy – among many); her historic, tide-turning moment in her 1952 testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”); her late in life recognition and celebrity through her best-selling memoirs and the film of one of them (Julia – starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda); her straight-forward and piercing stare in one of the famous “What Becomes a Legend Most?” Blackglama ads – all contributed to her presence in America’s mid-to-late 20th Century literary and celebrity iconography.
Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon have their work cut out for them. This is a well-known historic work featuring an intense, difficult and unlikable main character. But there are very few roles as satisfying and as blisteringly intelligent as Regina Giddens. This is a great chance to see these two accomplished actresses tackle this aggressive work – something they have both seen too little of in their careers. Some of us just might have to go twice to see each of them in the lead !