Elizabeth Ashley toplines the Shakespeare Theater’s grand and appealing production of Lillian Hellman’s classic melodrama “The Little Foxes,” underscoring for today’s generation that greed and deceit are never out of style. It’s the perfect vehicle for D.C. officials to nestle into after a hard day battling real-life corporate shenanigans.
Ashley, back at the Shakespeare for her first visit since “Sweet Bird of Youth” in 1998, has a role that her well-rounded career would seem destined to include — the villainous Regina Giddens, one of American theater’s most deliciously repulsive figures.
The husky-voiced Southerner, at home with angst-filled scripts, attacks the part with particular zeal. Under Doug Hughes’ free-flowing direction, she roams the luxurious parlor setting as the pivotal character in Hellman’s turn-of-the-century saga about a family’s business scheme. Regina’s goal is to escape her stifling community, and her victim is her ailing husband (Keir Dullea), a righteous bank executive who refuses on moral grounds to invest in her vehicle of escape.
Ashley’s Regina is ever the calculating siren, willing to adopt any tactic needed to achieve her aim. When she can’t win with charm, her arsenal’s chief weapon, there’s always cajoling, begging, threatening and shouting. The performance might be considered a bit too grand if it weren’t for several other powerful members of the excellent cast.
Company veteran David Sabin turns in a solid outing as the controlling older brother who is every bit his evil sister’s equal. Jonathan Hadary convinces as the weak sibling Oscar, while Dullea is fine as the pitiable husband (although he has difficulty mastering a Southern accent). Jewell Robinson is just right as the personable servant and mother figure, the voice of conscience this household so sorely needs.
But the evening’s most delightful performance is Nancy Robinette’s sensitive interpretation of Oscar’s meek and alcoholic wife, Birdie. One of the busiest actors on the D.C. area’s bustling theater scene, Robinette adds consistent comic relief with her bumbling character’s alcoholic haze and then steals the show in act three’s poignant moment when grim reality sinks in to Birdie.
Hugh Landwehr’s sumptuous set gives the play the solid feel of Southern aristocracy. Director Hughes, who recently ankled as artistic director of Long Wharf Theater, uses every inch to advantage as his characters plot their greedy schemes.