The role of Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes has to be one of the most powerful female roles in stage history. She’s a fiercely strong Southern woman who struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early 20th-century society where fathers considered only sons as their legal heirs.
The play is set in Alabama circa 1900 during a dinner that Regina and her brothers attend. It is there that they agree that they want more money and collaborate on a scheme to go into business with a Chicago developer who wants to build a cotton mill near their cotton plantation. Since women did not inherit family assets in 1900, Regina must ask her husband to help her out, and uses her daughter to help her stake her claim, a tactic that eventually backfires on her. During the course of their trying to blackmail various people, lives are tarnished and people are hurt, including Birdie, who is abused by her husband, and the loyal servants who work in the house as they are witnesses to a scheme that goes sour. It even leads to a sad, pointless death.
In Daniel Sullivan’s Broadway production, there is not one – but two actresses playing this meaty role, and they are two of our finest stage actresses today. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate the role of Regina and her sister-in-law, Birdie. Regina is the torturous of the two; Birdie is the tortured one. The two actresses’ role-swapping is truly one of the most unique attributes of this new production.
But there are also the other attributes, particularly the casting. Michael McKean, Darren Goldstein, David Alford, Francesca Carpanini, and most of all, Richard Thomas, who so superbly shines in this production. Tortured by Regina until his death, which she is indirectly responsible for, he plays her ailing husband with the just the right amount of disdain for her with a quiet yearning for her affection. The set and costumes are dazzling and have Tony Awards written all over them.
But most of all, the role swapping is pure gold. After seeing Nixon play Regina with near perfection, I craved a dose of seeing Linney in the same role. As Birdie, Linney is vulnerable, and a bit lost, playing a battered wife trying to make her way in an aristocratic world she doesn’t fit in. I can’t help but wonder what she would be like playing the evil Regina, and that alone makes me want to see the show again. Nixon is so devious and cruel in the role as Regina that I would love to see her play the battered Birdie. Both roles are so different that the show must take on a different life of its own with every role change.
If you’re a fan of either actress or love a good play by a woman and about women, The Little Foxes won’t let you down. It’s playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on 261 W. 47th St. Get ticket information here.
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary tickets to facilitate this review but all opinions are my own.