Jack O’Brien’s staging of “The Little Foxes” is so refreshing, so cunning, that even Lillian Hellman could find no reason to exaggerate its worth. The Lincoln Center Theater production, with an unbeatable cast led by Stockard Channing, furthers the reputations of all involved, none more so than that of the playwright herself.
Often dismissed as old-fashioned and melodramatic, Hellman’s words seem as fresh and vital as anything on Broadway today when spoken by Channing, Brian Murray, Frances Conroy and the others in this first-rate revival. As it did two seasons back with “The Heiress,” Lincoln Center turns a warhorse into a thoroughbred.
And as with “The Heiress,” there’s no trickery here, no massive rethinking, just a solid, expertly paced and acted presentation, performed on John Lee Beatty’s detail-perfect set of Southern gentility circa 1900.
Channing, of course, plays the deliciously amoral Regina Giddens, more than holding her own in a line of actresses that’s included Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis (in the 1941 film), Anne Bancroft and, most recently, Elizabeth Taylor (in the 1981 Broadway revival). Channing’s Regina is a more subtle monster than the scene-chewing standard set by Davis: Her capability for murder seems to surprise even herself. But capable she is.
Hellman wastes no time setting up the situation. Regina and her brothers, family head Benjamin Hubbard (Murray) and bullied middle child Oscar (Brian Kerwin), are nouveau riche cotton growers who have the chance to become mega-riche by investing in a Chicago businessman’s plan to construct a new mill. Regina, knowing that her brothers are depending on her third of the investment, is holding out for more than a third of the profits.
Regina is dependent too — on the money of her husband, Horace (Kenneth Welsh), a dying man who is summoned home from a five-month convalescence only because Regina doesn’t want to lose the moneymaking opportunity. But there’s a glitch: Oscar, in exchange for surrendering some of his shares to Regina, is demanding a marriage between his slimy son, Leo (Frederick Weller), and Regina’s kindly daughter, Alexandra (Jennifer Dundas). Horace, whose impending death has brought about a newfound distaste for such nefarious goings-on, balks at the entire get-rich scheme.
And so the games begin, with each of these “little foxes” nibbling at the other’s tender grapes (the title comes from the Song of Solomon) as each will let nothing stand in the way of financial gain. Hellman often said that most productions of her play missed the humor in all the back-stabbing; not so here, with Channing getting laughs from Regina’s protestations of naivete. “I don’t know about these things,” she says innocently during one business discussion, circling the kill.
Crushed by years of such cruelty is Birdie (Conroy), Oscar’s unloved, sweet-natured wife who’s turned to drink in the absence of a real place in this clan. Her fate, the play makes clear, could be Alexandra’s unless someone — the girl’s beloved nurse, Addie (Ethel Ayler), Horace or Alexandra herself — stands up to the forces of greed and heartlessness.
Someone does, but Hellman was smart enough to know that the foxes can’t be so easily beat. Regina gets what she wants, but not without cost.
O’Brien directs all this cutthroat maneuvering with cool elegance, drawing flawless performances from the foxes — Channing, Murray, Kerwin and Weller — and their victims — Conroy, Dundas and Welsh. Ayler couldn’t be better as the protective, strong-minded nurse/housekeeper, and all are attractively outfitted in Jane Greenwood’s period costumes. In more ways than one, the play has never looked better.