What is Regina thinking?
The question lingers enticingly all the way through Arena Stage’s immaculate revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 drama “The Little Foxes.” And in the guise of a cold-as-steel Marg Helgenberger, self-protectively calculating Regina Hubbard Giddens is indeed a gorgeous enigma, wrapped in red silk and guile.
The other cultivated barbarians of Regina’s rich Southern family, determined to thwart her mercenary ambitions, avidly desire intelligence about her inevitable counterattacks — and so does the audience in Arena’s Kreeger Theater. Staged by director Kyle Donnelly with a secure grasp of the diabolical brand of gentility practiced by the Hubbard clan, the production proves exemplary at milking the tension without falling prey — as it might — to outdated histrionics.
Hellman’s play predates by several years such 20th-century landmark dramas as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and though those works are granted much more exalted perches in our canon, you detect thematic antecedents in “Foxes.” The portrait of rancid capitalism, detailed in the Hubbards’ reputation for cheating in business, prefigures the shoddy tossing aside of Willy Loman by his company in “Salesman.” And in Hellman’s depiction of alcoholic, wounded Birdie Hubbard — played here with fluttery brilliance by Isabel Keating — there are intimations of the dissipation of Williams’s eternally tragic Southern belle, Blanche DuBois.
That “The Little Foxes” has not been judged to be quite in their league is an oversight that Arena seems intent on redressing as part of a significant reconsideration of the playwright’s work this season. The Lillian Hellman Festival commences with “Foxes” and, early next year, expands to include readings of plays including “Toys in the Attic” and “The Children’s Hour,” along with movie screenings and panel discussions, before concluding in late winter with Hellman’s suspenseful wartime drama, “Watch on the Rhine.”
Granted, Hellman does lay it on a bit thick in “Foxes”: The gratuitous swat that Gregory Linington’s Oscar lands on the face of his wife, Birdie, for instance, seems manufactured for audiences who don’t pick up subtler signals of domestic abuse. The continual spewing, too, of a certain racial epithet, while underlining a brutal truth of Alabama in 1900, tends in our time to raise the volume on a particularly vile character trait, at the expense perhaps of other important facets of the play.
Still, on the evidence of Arena’s production, with a cast that also includes Jack Willis, Edward Gero, Kim James Bey and Megan Graves — all in splendid form — “Foxes” is a durable period drama that flowers with the kind of lavish handling it receives here.
Jess Goldstein’s costumes for Regina amount to statements unto themselves: a dazzling red silk gown with train, velvet flowers and gold leaves in Act I and, later, a suit of silver seafoam brocade with embroidered cotton blouse. And the interior of the manor house, devised by set designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and dominated by a jagged, soaring staircase, attests to the luxe iciness of Regina’s household. The landscape represented on the walls — an arbor of leafless trees — is not one full of the promise of spring, but of the bleakness of winter.
Regina is on a mission in “The Little Foxes” to outmaneuver her brothers, Oscar and Gero’s Benjamin, who, taking advantage of her dying husband, Willis’s Horace, want to deny her an ample percentage of a deal that would bring a cotton mill to their sprawling fields. The play turns on a humiliation imposed on women of the time, by which the sons inherit their father’s wealth and daughters must marry well to make their fortune. The drama may posit Regina herself as a brute, revealed in one particularly unforgivable (and theatrically socko) act late in the play. But it also provides a humanizing rationale for why Regina, regarded as an alluring nuisance by her brothers, must be even more ruthless than the men. She is less than a hero but more than a villain.
Helgenberger, a television fixture by dint of her long stint on CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” reveals herself here as a ravishing presence who, by design, holds much back. It’s an excellently calibrated stage turn. Her chilly, disciplined Regina keeps emotion wholly in check, so much so that the bitterness that the dying Horace unloads on her — in Willis’s most persuasive work in Washington to date — feels totally comprehensible. Similarly, the affection Regina withholds from her daughter, Alexandra, played by the terrific Graves (who’s more impressive with every production she’s in), makes utterly believable the degree to which the girl depends on the family retainer, Bey’s caring Addie, for emotional sustenance.
Gero, Linington and Stanton Nash, as Oscar’s spoiled son, Leo, are guided by Donnelly to well-etched embodiments of the greed that has turned the arriviste Hubbards into monsters-with-manners. And Keating, as a Birdie who drinks too much and chirps too much and longs to return to her childhood nest, is something close to divine. Together, they’re helping Arena build a strong case for playgoers of this century looking anew at a major American playwright from the last one.
The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Kyle Donnelly. Set, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Nancy Schertler; original music and sound, Ryan Rumery; wigs, Anne Nesmith; fight direction, Joe Isenberg; casting, Amelia Powell and Geoff Josselson; stage manager, Christi B. Spann; dialects, Mary Coy. With David Emerson Toney, James Whalen. About 2½ hours. Tickets: $40-$90. Through Oct. 30 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.