An American-heavy year for the Donmar Warehouse comes to a heady peak with “The Little Foxes,” the Lillian Hellman melodrama that director Marianne Elliott has scintillatingly refashioned into a play about moral choice. Those in search of bitchery and camp should look elsewhere, since Elliott’s interest happily extends beyond Hellman’s ready-made barbs.
It’s not that the envenomed Regina Giddens is any less poisonous in Penelope Wilton’s portrayal than she has seemed before; it’s just that a play capable of seeming monochromatic here suddenly acquires all manner of fresh hues, rather as if Elliott and a largely first-rate cast — David Calder, most particularly — were shading in writing that Hellman herself was sometimes content to leave sketchy. (To that extent, the staging takes its cue from Colin Towns’ original score, which sings its own poignant blues.)
The revivifying layering of the production is borne out on a physical level by Lez Brotherston’s set, which drapes a rather grandly rotting interior in so much Spanish moss. And in acting terms it is most evidently true of Wilton in a knockout role that has over time served stage actresses as diverse as Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing with varying degrees of success, not to mention Bette Davis onscreen. (I still remember Taylor in the 1981 Broadway revival getting a standing ovation when she walked onstage, which was about the most exciting moment of the performance.)
The embodiment of a certain turn-of-the-century malignancy of the Deep South, this Regina is equally consumed by domestic score-settling and by a punctured ego that packs a personal wallop even as it signals trouble for a national tendency toward rapacity at large.
“Somewhere, there has to be what I want, too,” she remarks coolly near the end, her blackmailing tendencies twinned with a desire to get even with the rest of her money-minded clan. (The narrative, you’ll remember, involves snaring a cotton manufacturing fortune whether by cajoling — or by crook.) But for all her decidedly primal financial desires and needs, this Regina possesses a psychic thirst that just will not be slaked, and it’s Wilton’s accomplishment to honor the loneliness of a woman whose eyes seem to shine only at the thought of lucre. Even on the verge of winning, she’s deeply — woundingly — lost.
In some ways, that makes Regina the elegantly turned-out flip side to her sister-in-law Birdie, the headache-prone drunk whom Brid Brennan — intriguingly cast against expectation — plays as a damaged spouse who is as shrewd and self-aware about her despair (“stupid, stupid me,” she decides late on) as Regina is closed-off. Whose misery, then, is greater? This production leaves the answer tantalizingly up for grabs, even if Hellman makes it plain that the Birdies of the world exist to be sacrificed at the altar of the Reginas, who are busy preying on society’s weak and then calmly looking away.
Regina, of course, doesn’t have the monopoly on malevolence, and there’s real juice to be had from the scenes in which she and her two scheming siblings — Ben (Calder) and Oscar (Matthew Marsh) — plot the Chicago partnership that will make them rich, even if that means letting Regina’s own husband, Horace (a poignantly cadaverous Peter Guinness), expire in the process.
In contrast to Marsh’s expertly played tyrant of an Oscar, Calder’s Ben seems at the start all cheerful bluster and bonhomie, his motto that one must “never leave a meal unfinished (since) too many poor people need the food.” The actor’s distinctive white hair glistening in the morning sun — the exquisite lighting is by Paule Constable — his beaming countenance darkens as Ben’s misdeeds mount, the brother reduced to a last desperate gasp of the single word, “greedy.”
It’s not long after that this “Little Foxes” saves its greatest power not for words but for a long slow fade on Wilton’s infinitely fallible Regina, a woman of darkness who meets her daughter’s question, “Are you afraid?,” not with a direct answer but with a long, slow and scaldingly self-knowing stare into the light.