If you were putting together a staging of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, the obvious casting would be Linney as the villainous Regina Giddens and Nixon as the pathetic Birdie, but the gimmick of this production is that Linney and Nixon alternate these roles at each performance. This kind of thing has been done before, usually in Shakespearean repertory, but only hardcore enthusiasts of this play and these actresses will want to see it twice. So which to choose?
Going with the spirit of adventure, I chose the less obvious pairing of Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie to see just how versatile they could be. Linney was offered the role of Regina first, but she also loved the role of Birdie and she remembered that Nixon wanted to play Regina, which is how this fairly unusual alternating scheme came about. The ironic thing is that The Little Foxes is a play about how unrestrained capitalist greed destroys everything in its path, yet it was Linney’s greed as an actress who wanted to play both Regina and Birdie that led to a very creatively stimulating situation.
The Little Foxes is so strongly written and plotted that it practically plays itself. And so in the version that I saw, Nixon made for a rather soft Regina while Linney made for a somewhat steely Birdie, but because the roles are so perfectly conceived by Hellman these contrasts only serve to highlight just what a sturdy piece of machinery this play is. The fun here is hearing the hardness in Linney’s voice on lines from Birdie that have almost always been played in a flutteringly vulnerable manner and seeing and hearing the vulnerability in Nixon while Regina does the outright evil things she needs to do in order to get what she wants.
Tallulah Bankhead had her biggest success when she did the original 1939 production of this play, and then it was made into a fine movie in 1941 starring Bette Davis, who played Regina in a heavy and thug-like manner. Hellman was far left wing politically, and she made sure that the African-American people in this play were as well rounded as all the other characters. The Little Foxes has become a perennial because its attitudes were progressive when it was written but seem simply modern now, and that goes double for its unsparing view of the selfishness and skullduggery that animates American business interests.
Many of Hellman’s other plays founder and go un-revived because her view of people was as either wholly good or wholly bad, but The Little Foxes makes a sharp political point on America out of that limited way of thinking. Both Linney and Nixon dug into their respective roles so hungrily in the version that I saw that it might really be worthwhile to see this twice just to enjoy the relentlessness of the play but also to enjoy the formidable technique and skill being exercised by both of these actresses.