While I’ve never seen Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes presented in its original live theatrical format, the 1941 film adaptation starring Bette Davis, Hubert Marshall, Patricia Collinge and Theresa Wright as directed by William Wyler, is among my very favorite of the iconic actress’ films. The play itself enjoyed a resurgence in popularity recently when it returned to Broadway starring Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon. Telling the tale of a family in post-Civil War Alabama struggling to keep up appearances as they bicker over maintaining the family’s wealth and prominence in the ever-changing early 20th century, Act 1 presents The Little Foxes at the Darkhorse Theatre (4610 Charlotte Ave., Nashville, TN 37209) from Friday, May 4-Saturday, May 19. The work is being directed by revered theatre critic, Jeffrey Ellis, who very accurately describes himself as Nashville’s Addison Dewitt (a nod to yet another classic Davis film). What’s more, among Ellis’ cast are Helen Shute-Pettaway, Rob Wilds, Rachel Woods, Caroline Davis and others, making up a veritable who’s who amongst Music CIty’s most talented and respected theaterati. Given those details, it was a no-brainer that I’d be chatting with Ellis and company for the latest installment of my recurring celebrity interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q.
Rapid Fire 20 Q WITH DIRECTOR AND CAST OF ACT 1’s THE LITTLE FOXES
RAPID FIRE WITH THE LITTLE FOXES DIRECTOR JEFFREY ELLIS
JONATHAN PINKERTON: Since we both have an affinity for classic Hollywood movies and I’ve chatted with you frequently enough for various Rapid Fire 20 Qs, at this point you know I’m gonna kick things off by asking you your first memories of The Little Foxes?
JEFFREY ELLIS: I was raised on classic, black and white film and I love those movies. I probably first fell in love with The Little Foxes — and the character of Regina Giddens — when I was a kid! Certainly before my teenaged years and what I remember is how dastardly the family is (all the Hubbards and Giddenses) and how the actors in those roles created such iconic film portrayals. I first read the play when I was in high school and I knew then that Lillian Hellman had written a masterpiece; her words are so perfect for each of her characters and the situations she has created for them have such resonance. These are real people, behaving like real families, and while they are indeed dastardly, there’s something about each one that charms you. No matter how evil they are, you kind of love them! The other thing that really sticks out about this play when you’re working on it every day is the discovery of how funny it is, how wicked and fun the dialogue can be, particularly when delivered by actors at the top of their game.
JP: When you directed My Fair Lady last year, your cast featured an African-American actress as Eliza Doolittle, giving new depth to the story of Professor Higgins and his braggart ability to refine anyone. Now you’ve cast local theatre treasure Helen Shute-Pettaway in the coveted role of Regina Giddens. Was she simply the best actress for the job or are you making a statement about playwright Lillian Hellman’s post-civil war familial drama by introducing an interracial family into the story?
JEFFREY ELLIS: Helen is the best woman for the job, there is no doubt about that. When we had our first read-through of the script, Helen came in and was Regina, simple as that. Since then, we’ve all been awestruck by her constant work to create a Regina who is wonderfully regal and overbearing, yet somehow accessible and tremendously engaging. I’m also approaching the events in The Little Foxes, as if they are just things that have happened in small Southern towns for generations. Having an African-American actress play Regina adds layers of subtext and meaning to a script already overflowing with everything that we love about American drama. I’ve constructed a completely plausible backstory for an interracial family in 1900 Alabama, and although there’s never a mention of it during the play and my director’s note doesn’t allude to it, it helps our actors inform their performances from the world that I’ve suggested for the Hubbard family in the mid-18th century.
JP: Anyone familiar with the story of The Little Foxes, in particular, the wide-reaching audience of the 1941 film adaptation headlined by Bette Davis and directed by William Wyler, no doubt also has preconceptions about the grandeur of the old south as visually manifested in the antebellum mansion in which the play takes place, as well as the gorgeous period costumes worn by the actors in the film version. For your production, you’ve enlisted scenic designer Jeremy Stemen, costumer Lisa Casteel McLaurin and property mistress Emily Daigneault to transform Darkhorse Theatre into Regina’s world. What guidelines have you given your creative team to achieve your vision of The Little Foxes?
JEFFREY ELLIS: I told them I wanted it to be stunning, of course! And it will be, I think…I have a wonderful team supporting me with their wonderful ideas and designs and I believe audiences will leave the Darkhorse thinking it’s a physical production they’ve never seen there. I should probably remind audiences I’m the man who brought The Last Five Years to the stage of the Darkhorse and allowed my designer for that show — Cody Rutledge — to do what he does best. It’s also fun to work with designers making their Nashville theater debut with this production and I do believe they are going to do me proud!
JP: Last year’s Broadway revival of The Little Foxes starring Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon was unique in that the actresses alternated playing Regina and her put upon sister-in-law, Birdie Hubbard. For your production, in addition to the aforementioned Shute-Pettaway as Regina, you’ve cast another Nashville acting favorite, Caroline Davis in the role Birdie. Was there any thought of having the actresses alternate roles from performance to performance?
JEFFREY ELLIS: No, not at all. Maybe if it hadn’t already been done, I would have had the idea. But I like to always give my shows a personal interpretation, to allow my production to speak for me and what the script means to me — whether it’s a musical theater legend like My Fair Lady or South Pacific, or a classic stage melodrama like The Little Foxes or Picnic. I always feel like if I don’t offer a unique perspective, a personal interpretation, what have I really done?
RAPID FIRE WITH HELEN SHUTE-PETTAWAY, REGINA GIDDENS IN ACT 1’s THE LITTLE FOXES
JP: When I spoke with Jeffrey, I asked him about casting you in the role of Regina Giddens, a role traditionally played by caucasian actresses. As a black actress, how do you think your playing the role will alter the audience’s notions of race as it relates to this post-Civil War familial drama?
HELEN SHUTE-PETTAWAY: I am not certain that having an African American woman in the role of Regina Giddens will alter the notions/perceptions of the audience, as much as giving them food for thought, and expanding their knowledge of the ways of the south at that time. Of course, it is a fact that many white male plantation owners impregnated female slaves. It is also known that there were cases of the children of these sad and unavoidable encounters, residing in the main house. With that realization in mind, it is not a totally foreign idea that the plantation owner could become so ‘smitten’ with this child; that he would choose to raise her as his own. If the family was extremely influential and held a power position within the community; there would certainly be less likelihood of objections being openly expressed.
JP: Having been named among the 2011 First Night Honorees, Jeffrey’s annual area theatre accolades, you no doubt have a strong history with him. How is he as a director?
HELEN SHUTE-PETTAWAY: I found Jeffrey to be a very gentle, informative guiding force to his cast. He allowed the cast to feel free to explore and discover once given the concept. He was very clear in communicating his vision and was trusting in our ability to traverse this world. For that, I am very grateful.
JP: My own familiarity with The Little Foxes is steeped in Bette Davis’ iconic film, so I’ve got to admit, she’s my Regina Giddens. What’s something you’ve found in the character that you feel is uniquely your own interpretation of her?
HELEN SHUTE-PETTAWAY: Obviously, the fact that I am a woman of color in this role is unique in and of itself. With that said, my journey of discovery has become multi-layered. One thing that I will discuss here, is the world within a world, so to speak, causing my Regina to have inner conflicts and resoluteness of certain beliefs that can only come from being ‘colored’ in this world. It may sound difficult to understand, but it is my fervent prayer that my extraordinary love and respect for what I do as a theatre artist will result in clarity. These are things that aid her along this journey and makes the road traveled, interesting. Again, as I said…this is my prayer…
JP: Something else I asked Jeffrey about….the idea of following in the footsteps of Broadway’s recent revival and having the female leads switch roles from performance to performance. Had that happened, what about Birdie’s character would you have liked to explore?
HELEN SHUTE-PETTAWAY: It would interest me to explore the quiet gentleness of Birdie coupled with an inner strength wanting to gain freedom…to put it succinctly…
RAPID FIRE WITH ROB WILDS, HORRACE GIDDENS IN ACT 1’s THE LITTLE FOXES
JP: What is it about The Little Foxes that attracted you to the project?
ROB WILDS: I have liked and appreciated this play for many years. In fact, my Master’s thesis long ago dealt with Southern women in several plays, one of which was The Little Foxes. I knew the play was well-written with extremely complex and interesting characters which most actors would love to play. Add to all that, I have always wanted to fall up a staircase, and my character gets to do just that.
JP: Playwright Hellman pulls no punches with some honest dialogue, especially where Horrace and wife Regina are concerned. What’s the most satisfying aspect of playing their on-stage honesty?
ROB WILDS: Horace and Regina have reached the end of the line. For Horace, there is nothing to lose, since his very his life is swiftly running out. I admit, there is a moment (or several) in the play in which Horace FINALLY gets to tell Regina what he thinks of her that make me remember all the people I was not honest with. Feels good to lance the boil.
JP: When not on stage, you’re well-known for your work as a segment producer for Tennessee Crossroads. If Crossroads were to do a story on The Giddens/Hubbard clan, how would that intro go?
ROB WILDS: This week, Rob Wilds visits the Hubbard family for their home-grown version of Family Feud. In the Hubbard house, the emotions are hot but the grits are cold. That’s coming up this week on Tennessee Crossroads.
JP: Tell me about sharing the stage with Helen, Rachel and the rest?
ROB WILDS: I have worked with Greg*, Caroline, and Helen before, and was delighted to get the chance to do that again. This is my first go-round with the other actors. It is a wonder to watch everyone go through their paces. Each character has moments to shine. These actors put life in those moments. Watching them work is extremely enjoyable as well as an education for me in developing and portraying a character. (*note: Greg Williams Welch plays Regina’s brother, Ben)
RAPID FIRE WITH RACHEL WOODS, ALEXANDRA GIDDENS IN ACT 1’s THE LITTLE FOXES
JP: As Alexandra, you and your on-stage intended, Leo Giddens (Austin Jeffrey Smith) are among the cast’s youngest members. Have any of your most experienced cast mates offered any advice or have you learned from witnessing them display their craft?
RACHEL WOODS: The best way to learn is to observe. My favorite parts of rehearsal are when I get to sit and listen. Watching Helen and Rob spar is tremendous!
JP: How familiar with The Little Foxes were you before auditioning for the role of Alexandra?
RACHEL WOODS: I hadn’t seen the movie, but I studied scenes from the play during a six-week intensive at the Eugene O’Neill Center.
JP: Within the context of the play, there’s a special bond between your character and Birdie. Do you think Alexandra fears she might end up like Birdie if she doesn’t assert herself like Regina?
RACHEL WOODS: I think Alexandra loves and admires her aunt, and in turn, Birdie opens her eyes to how much danger Zan is in the longer she stays in the Giddens-Hubbard house. But Alexandra loves and admires her mother, too. She draws from both women as she struggles through the events of the play.
JP: Did playwright Hellman use Alexandra’s decision to leave following her father’s death as a symbol of women and their right to live their own lives?
RACHEL WOODS: I think there are a multitude of ways to interpret Alexandra’s exit. For me, she’s a young woman who is leaving a toxic environment, and that is empowering. With that in mind, what about Addie? What about Birdie? And yes, what about Regina? Alexandra is walking into a world of uncertainty, and we hope she’ll be better off, but we can’t forget the women she leaves behind — and the reasons why they can’t follow her.
RAPID FIRE WITH CAROLINE DAVIS, BIRDIE HUBBARD IN ACT 1’s THE LITTLE FOXES
JP: OK, I’m just gonna say it. Having seen you in a number of roles over the years, in particular, your brilliant turn as Emily Dickinson in The Belle Of Amherst back in 2015, I was thrilled to learn you were cast as Birdie in The Little Foxes. I simply adore Birdie! What’s your favorite aspect of the character?
CAROLINE DAVIS: You are very kind! I’ve read that Hellman wasn’t a big fan of Birdie (she was based on her mother, I believe), but at this point in her life, Birdie is finally telling some truths, and I love those moments of realization that finally prompt her to speak out. It’s been a long time coming, bless her. I can see the flashes of bravery in Birdie, even if no one else can.
JP: Do you think Birdie’s timidity is simply a result of her time and station in life?
CAROLINE DAVIS: Her family station and the era have certainly done her no empowerment favors, but she has been dismissed and worn down for 20 years; I think of her as beaten down, more than timid. She grew up in a house of kindness, and the Hubbards are a ruthless bunch. She was not prepared.
JP: Since I brought up the recent Broadway revival when I chatted with both Jeffrey and Helen, I want your thoughts…had the opportunity presented itself for you and Helen to alternate playing Birdie and Regina from performance to performance, what aspect of Regina’s character do you think you’d enjoy exploring onstage?
CAROLINE DAVIS: Regina is clearly the equal of Ben in terms of business acumen, but she’s been marginalized by the men in her life, and there are moments she downplays her own ability to understand (and scheme!). It would be fun to explore the times she uses her perceived disadvantages as a woman to her benefit — how she plays the woman card, so to speak.
JP: Hellman’s The Little Foxes takes place in aristocratic post-Civil War Alabama, but thanks to the playwright’s ability to tap into realistic domestic discourse, many themes in the play continue to be relatable today. What’s one key element of The Little Foxes that audiences should take note of?
CAROLINE DAVIS: The idea of “What is enough?” fascinates me. The Hubbards have wealth, but they need more. And they have so little love, decency and joy, but those riches aren’t important to them. And, speaking under Birdie’s influence: It might not make for great drama, but try a little kindness, people, for all our sakes!
Act 1’s The Little Foxes opens at Darkhorse Theatre Friday, May 4 and continues through Saturday, May 19. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.Tickets are $15 and are available online or at the theatre box office prior to each performances. Click Here to purchase tickets.
Coming up at Darkhorse Theatre, beloved southern storyteller, Del Shores returns to Nashville with his latest, Six Characters in Search of a Play for two days only, May 25 & 26. Click Here for tickets or more details.
Up next for Act 1 is Measure for Measure, directed by Melissa Williams, onstage at Darkhorse Theatre June 22-July 7. Click Here for more information.
When not directing his unique visions of classic theatrical productions, Jeffrey Ellis maintains his Addison Dewitt status as a theatre critic. Click Here to check out his Broadway World.com column. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
If you enjoyed this Rapid Fire 20 Q, Click Here to check out previous conversations. Be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler.