Smile when you say that:Nancy Robinette and Elizabeth Ashley in The Little Foxes(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Smile when you say that:
Nancy Robinette and Elizabeth Ashley in The Little Foxes
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Counting Tallulah Bankhead, Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing, not to mention Bette Davis in the definitive 1941 film, a lot of talented and glamorous actresses have essayed the role of Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's great American classic The Little Foxes. From their point of view, it must be delicious fun prowling the stage like a panther ready to pounce on its prey, draping themselves over Victorian furniture, and sashaying about in period gowns while speaking with a gothic Southern accent. If that's the case, no one is having more fun these days than Elizabeth Ashley, who is currently starring as Regina in a riveting revival of Hellman's 1939 story of family discontent at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. Arguably destined to play the role, Ashley, aided by a superb supporting cast and seamless direction by Doug Hughes, is giving theater lovers everywhere a major reason to visit our nation's capital even if the Sondheim Celebration wasn't happening simultaneously at the Kennedy Center.

For the small handful of people who aren't familiar with the plot, The Little Foxes is set in 1900 in the South. The Hubbard brothers, Ben and Oscar, want to bring a mill to their town to process their cotton and need $75,000 to make it happen. When they approach their sister, Regina, for the money to keep control of the mill (and its profits) within the family, a chain of events is set in motion that elicits malevolence and selfishness of epic proportions in everyone as Regina stops at nothing to get what she wants. In other words, it's just another timeless story of a dysfunctional family torn apart by greed. But, oh, what a family!

As the matriarch of the Hubbard clan, Ashley returns to The Shakespeare Theatre for the first time since she starred in Michael Kahn's acclaimed 1997 production of Sweet Bird of Youth and garnered raves for her performance as The Princess Kosmonopolis (opposite Michael Hayden). Regina is a villainous role and Ashley attacks it with just the right balance of resolve, determination, and desperation. Her cold and steely portrayal of a woman who realizes that the financial opportunity put forth by her brothers will undoubtedly be her last chance to realize her dreams is both harrowing and provocative. Ashley's legendary eyes flash brightly as she glides about the furniture in the front parlor of the home she shares with her invalid husband, Horace, and daughter, Alexandra. Mid-way through Act I, just as she has dropped the first bomb in the siblings' war, Ashley crosses stage right and languorously slides into a chair against the proscenium wall to wait for her brothers' reaction. Bathed in a pool of alabaster light, she lets her head fall backward to give the impression that she's not even listening to what's going on, and the picture is breathtaking. But the minute Regina hears something that causes alarm, Ashley's eyes open and shoot to the left, her gaze like a lightening bolt crossing the stage. It's the kind of theatrical magic that Ashley pulls off effortlessly, and it's only the first of many such moments. Rather than chewing the scenery shamelessly throughout the play, Ashley keeps Regina's machinations understated, slowly revealing both her treachery and vulnerability.

Of course, a brilliant Regina is essential for a compelling production of The Little Foxes, but she will only be as good as the supporting cast around her. Ashley is fortunate to have an extraordinary group of professionals conniving with her on-stage. As her scheming, manipulative brothers Ben and Oscar, David Sabin and Jonathan Hadary are dazzling. Sabin, a veteran of many productions at The Shakespeare, is droll and unflappable as Ben, striking just the right balance of humor and villainy in a man who clearly understands what's unfolding around him but only cares about himself. His delivery of the line "greedy girl!" to Regina, when he learns that she wants 75% of the profits from the mill, is deliciously wicked. Hadary, so often misused in New York productions, is perfection here as Oscar, a man browbeaten by his brother and sister and contemptuous of his wife. Quiet desperation is written all over his face, and the anger and resentment raging within him are palpable with every word he utters. It's a masterful performance of a tricky role, and it's a pleasure to see Hadary so wonderfully cast.

Gathering of the clan: Matthew Schneck, David Sabin, Ted Pejovich,Elizabeth Ashley, and Jonathan Hadary in The Little Foxes(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Gathering of the clan: Matthew Schneck, David Sabin, Ted Pejovich,
Elizabeth Ashley, and Jonathan Hadary in The Little Foxes
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
As Regina's husband, Horace, Keir Dullea--the star of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, who previously played opposite Ashley in the 1974 Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof--is fantastic. His careful, measured speech and clarity of tone when speaking to Regina offer a portrait of a man filled with sadness, remorse, and bitterness towards a wife that never loved him. As Horace's argument with Regina grows in volume and ferocity, Dullea's contorted face is devastating: Here is a man who knows that his life is near its end but still demands his revenge, even if from beyond the grave.

Nancy Robinette negotiates the pivotal role of Birdie with elegant grace and heartbreaking believability. Matthew Schneck delightfully irritates and annoys as Oscar's thieving son, Leo. And Nicole Lowrence, although a bit shrill at the climax of Act II, recovers nicely to communicate Alexandra's blossoming awareness of her family's faults at the end of Act III. As the Giddens' servants Cal and Addie, Joseph Lane and Jewell Robinson give lovely performances full of quiet dignity.

As usual at The Shakespeare, the sets by Hugh Landwehr and costumes by Jess Goldstein are sumptuous, with careful attention paid to the smallest of details. From the fabrics and wallpapers to the marble-topped Victorian tables to the layers of petticoats and trim, nothing is overlooked. This perfectionism, combined with Robert Wierzel's gorgeous, subtle lighting, fully conveys a turn-of-the-century feeling. Doug Hughes direction keeps the action moving briskly and naturally, the actors moving around Landwehr's lavish furnishings with ease. Worthy of note are the many beautiful stage pictures that Hughes has managed to create, especially a moment at the top of Act II: Regina is pleading with Horace to give her the money she needs to invest in her brothers' scheme as Ben looks on in the sitting room while Oscar and Leo are both listening in earnest far upstage in the dining room. If you looked up "greed" in the dictionary and found that Webster's had printed a photo of that moment, the word's definition would be crystal clear. Small touches like this one, shrewdly executed, are the hallmark of an astute director--and Hughes must have been elated to have such seasoned pros at his disposal.