You’d think after two celebrated network TV series and an Emmy Award, Marg Helgenberger could pretty much waltz onto a Broadway stage. But the silos of showbiz don’t bend quite that accommodatingly. Sure, her roles on “China Beach” and, even more prominently, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” earned her respect and quick entree to important people, but she has still had to wait in line for the right part.
In spring 2012, soon after leaving “CSI,” she had meetings with theater people in New York, “just to let them know, ‘Hey, here I am, I’m going to be available.’ ” The reception was encouraging: “We’d love to have you,” they told her. Still, the mechanics of securing a part — coming in from the West Coast to audition, for instance — were a problem. So the offers didn’t exactly flow.
“There are a lot of people who are established as stage actors, and, you know, they tend to go for the ones they know, the ones where they know what they’re going to get,” she says. “And I get that. I really do.”
All of which explains, in a sense, how Helgenberger, in late summer, came to be flying from her home in Los Angeles to Washington to begin work at Arena Stage on a monster of a role in a great American play. Work at a regional theater might be a half-step less risky, but it is nevertheless a high-stakes assignment for an accomplished 57-year-old actress seeking to pivot to the next phase of her career. The job presents her with the most volcanic stage challenge of her professional life. The performance also could bolster this Northwestern University graduate’s credibility as she tries to segue to other theater work and widen the variety of roles she’s thought of for. And all at an age that, fairly or not, amounts to a challenging turning point, even for actresses of Helgenberger’s caliber.
Regina Giddens, the ruthless Alabama schemer of Lillian Hellman’s scalding family drama, “The Little Foxes,” is the mountain Helgenberger is scaling. Although the actress is quick to note that the 10-character 1939 play requires a strong ensemble — her castmates at Arena include Edward Gero, Jack Willis, Isabel Keating and Greg Linington — Hellman’s best-known play historically rises or falls on the strength of its Regina.
The list of powerhouse actresses who have played her attests to this truism: Tallulah Bankhead in the original Broadway production, which started at Washington’s National Theatre; Bette Davis in the 1941 film version, directed by William Wyler; Elizabeth Taylor in a 1981 Broadway revival. Next spring, there will be yet another incarnation of the play at Broadway’s Manhattan Theater Club, with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternating in the roles of Regina and her alcoholic sister in-law, Birdie Hubbard, a part being played at Arena by Keating.
“I have to be the one that’s the eye of the hurricane,” Helgenberger cheerfully observes, sitting in a sleek Arena conference room on a warm morning before the day’s rehearsals begin.
“I keep coming back to the brilliance of the writing. Hellman crafted it in a way that the characters are so complex, I’m sure that if I were doing this for six months, I’d be saying, ‘Ohhh — that’s what she meant!’ ”
Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, thought of Helgenberger when she was putting together what would become the company’s Lillian Hellman Festival, an event bookended by “The Little Foxes” and later this season, Hellman’s World War II thriller, “Watch on the Rhine.” And Smith had a sense, she says, that the actress would be eager to sign up.
“Theater is seen as a pinnacle for an artist’s work, because of the rehearsal period, the literary nature of the theater, and because an actor needs to drive through a 2½ -hour performance,” Smith says. “There is a hunger to be in front of a live audience. It’s the ground on which we stand.”
It was Helgenberger’s television work, which saw her in roles with sordid underpinnings — as a tough, troubled, sometimes heroin addict on the Vietnam War drama “China Beach,” and an exotic-dancer-turned-FBI-criminalist on the long-running “CSI” — that made her seem a good match for conniving Regina. (She also once upon a time played murder victim Jon-Benet Ramsey’s mother, Patsy, in a television miniseries.) Regina is a strong woman forced in the hidebound South of the early 20th century to rely on cunning, and despite the personal cost, to outmaneuver her greedy brothers in the family’s ongoing financial warfare.
“I knew she could pull off the glamour, the steeliness, the iciness,” says director Kyle Donnelly, whose myriad previous assignments for Arena have been as diverse as Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” and Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities.” She and Helgenberger first got together in Southern California, where they both live, to talk about the role. They hit it off, in part because the director recognized in the actress aspects of her personality that television didn’t always take advantage of.
“We’re both mothers; we both have kids,” Donnelly says. “What I look for with someone is where they are from, what are their roots. That’s a big deal to me, because people can access things you wouldn’t see on the surface.” The actress’s middle-American origins — she’s from a small farm town in Nebraska — “meant a lot to me,” the director says. That Midwestern openness came through in ways suggesting to Donnelly a Regina who’s also a mother, and one who wouldn’t be one-dimensional.
“The trap in this play is that the good guys could just be good guys and the bad guys, bad guys,” she says. “But the good guys have to have their faults, and bad guys, vulnerabilities.” Some of that, she saw in Helgenberger. “That makes it to me,” Donnelly adds, “a much more interesting play.”
Helgenberger’s career hopes evolved, it seems, without a trace of Regina’s guile. After two years at a state college in Nebraska, she transferred to Northwestern to study drama, at the urging, she says, of her then-boyfriend, who wanted to pursue a medical degree in Chicago. (She got in; he didn’t.) She was never completely convinced, though, that she could earn a living as an actress, “because I didn’t know anyone who had a career as an actor in Nebraska.”
At Northwestern, she played Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew”; her Petruchio was Bruce Norris, who later would write the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park.” She was in other shows, including a production of “The Threepenny Opera” with another student by the name of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It just so happened that an agent saw her in “Shrew,” and that led to a screen test for a soap opera, “Ryan’s Hope,” that was shot in studios in New York City.
Cast a couple of weeks out of school as Siobhan Ryan, the youngest of the blue-collar Ryan clan, she moved to New York and embarked on an actor’s life that, with only a few dry spells, would keep her steadily employed on network TV from 1982 until her departure from “CSI” almost 30 years later. “I want to say it was $375 an episode, with a guarantee of two episodes a week,” she says, recalling her starting salary on the soap. To calculate her reported wages on “CSI,” raise that figure somewhere into the hundreds of thousands.
“China Beach,” an ABC series that debuted in 1987 and was based on the experiences of Vietnam War veterans, was a ratings-challenged critics’ darling starring Dana Delaney (and winning Helgenberger her Emmy). “It didn’t have the best ratings, right? So ABC started moving it [on the weekly schedule]. That’s a surefire way of killing your audience. Especially in those days. VCRs existed, but very few people knew how to program them!”
“CSI,” she says was “the complete opposite”: “It premiered [in 2000] to, I think, 18.9 million viewers. With little fanfare. The audience clearly was thirsty for a 21st-century Sherlock Holmes-type show.”
Helgenberger notes that she was one of the few actors who actually watched an autopsy to help her with the authenticity of her portrayal of her character, blood splatter specialist Catherine Willows. (She tells an absorbing story about following on her rounds a Las Vegas criminalist on whom her character was loosely based, and arriving with her at the scene of a fresh crime scene investigation.) To explore Regina, though, she turned to books — Hellman’s 1973 memoir, “Pentimento,” among others — and a fuller immersion in the story of the Hubbards, based on the playwright’s own family.
“I still feel like I’ve got so much more to learn,” Helgenberger says of the craft she has pursued for decades. Her 25-year-old son, Hugh, with actor Alan Rosenberg (they’re now divorced), is off teaching English in Japan. She has a dog she misses, too, back in California, but she’s enjoying the companionship forged through the family of “Foxes.”
“A lot of the actors on the show, they’ve done so much theater, and I sit there and listen to them talk about what this production or that one was like.” she says. “It’s like music to my ears. I love the theater. And so I feel like a kid again.”
The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Kyle Donnelly. Tickets, $65-$100. Through Oct. 30 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.