A play opened at the Eisenhower Theater last night.

Of all the amazing things that happened, that was the most amazing. The surroundings seemed more appropriate to a lion-and-Christian act, or a treaty-signing, or a state funeral, than to a substantial, even memorable, work of theater. But the theater works in wondrous ways. Amen. Ten-four.

The sequence of events that led to "Elizabeth Taylor in "The Little Foxes'" was heavy with its own irony. Consider that the conservative tide that made Ronald Reagan president also made Mrs. John Warner a court figure in the new Republican scheme of things, thus contributing to her Broadway debut in a play by a woman who has spent a lifetime launching missiles from another side of the political fence. Consider that all the notables of an administration out to save the nation by unshackling the power of the profit motive turned out last night for a play that is, among other things, a frightening portrait of the profit motive in its unshackled state.

And if you are a theatergoer as well as a student of the times, consider this: At the Kennedy Center lately, the star system has been responsible for a series of pale and silly evenings in the theater. Now along comes a case study of the star system at its theoretical worst -- a production created solely because a semiretired movie actress, who had almost never appeared on stage, said she'd like to -- and the result is one of the most satisfying productions in the Kennedy Center's recent history.

Well, so much for irony. A word about Elizabeth Taylor.

The word is: impressive. There are incongruous touches -- a coquettish, gushing quality creeps into her voice and demeanor at times when the character should be harder, or at least hint more at her hardness -- but Taylor gives a robust and involving performance as Regina, one of the great scheming women in the American drama, pumping life and suspense into many of the critical passages of Lillian Hellman's play. Or, more accurately, Taylor gave such a performance last night, with the president, the first lady and the star's husband all watching from a prominent box overhead, and with a generous sample of Washington notability filling out the rest of the seats, ogling in both directions at once. How anyone could act at all under such circumstances is beyond me. Maybe Taylor's experience in the fishbowl is more important for now than her relative inexperience in the theater.

Taylor is at her best in the backbiting climax of the second act, when the air is thick with the greedy plotting of the Hubbard family. She is at her weakest when her generous-hearted husband has a heart attack in the third act, and she just sits immobile, withholding the medicine that could save his life. A bolt of lightning should fly from her calculating brow to his vulnerable breast. But if there was no lightning here, there were plenty of sparks elsewhere.

Taylor doesn't dominate "The Little Foxes" as, say, Tallulah Bankhead must have in the original stage production, and as Bette Davis did in the movie. But it is hard to complain about that with a supporting cast like the present one. Dominating Maureen Stapleton and Anthony Zerbe would be a feat.

Stapleton and Zerbe are the pillars of the production. As the fragile, stepped-on, aristocratic Birdie, Stapleton gives a truly wrenching performance. "Nobody ever lost their temper at Lionnet," she says, recalling the feudal niceties of life on the ancestral plantation. "Nobody ever would." And she could break your heart.

As Ben, the bachelor brother of the Hubbards, Zerbe delivers a sly and engaging portrait of a Southern man on the make, his forward-looking dream of "bringing the machines to the cotton, not the cotton to the machines" harshly juxtaposed against Birdie's wistful vision of a return to the plantation.

Two more fine performances are rendered by Dennis Christopher as Leo and Ann Tallman as Alexandra -- young roles of the sort often treated as afterthoughts in revivals of this vintage. But this is a production without afterthoughts, a point demonstrated by a single scenic detail: In addition to all the other items of visual finery (the cutaway ceiling and chandelier, the grandfather clock, the gas lamps, the wine-colored wallpaper, the crystal glassware), designer Andrew Jackness has provided the profiles of two Roman columns outside the Hubbard house, virtually offstage, where perhaps a tenth of the audience can see them.

Director Austin Pendelton (who played Leo in the last Broadway revival of "The Little Foxes") has contributed a shrewd pace, and he has arrayed several scenes with particular originality and force -- for example, the entrance of Tom Aldredge as Regina's banker husband. Pendleton has this frail figure, back from treatment for a heart condition, stand on the stage apron with his back to the audience as his avaricious kin burst from the dining room upstage and rush forward to overwhelm him with insincere greetings. The effect is to make us fearful that Aldredge could fall right off the stage.

"The Little Foxes" is unfashionable and/or old-fashioned on any number of counts -- from its fact-filled exposition to its socially purposeful subject matter. "There are people who eat the earth and people who stand around and watch them eat it," says the maid, Addie, in a conspicuously weighty commentary on the action.

But at last night's performance reaffirmed, the play has enormous humor and charm as well as raw energy -- and it has people who live and linger in the memory.