It’s quite a compelling idea. To be able to see two great stage actors alternating between two very different roles in the classic Lillian Hellman play, I feel so thankful that I was able to see both versions over the last few weeks. A little over a week ago I saw Laura Linney (Time Stands Still) as the formidable Regina, master fox of the Hubbard family, manipulate her way to a hopeful fortune. Cynthia Nixon (Rabbit Hole) played the well-named Birdie, nervously flitting around, desperate to escape but to afraid to try. Then yesterday, through the grace of the Frontmezzjunkies theatrical god, I was able to see the reverse. And what fun this play is. The 2 1/2 hours flies by, without a thought to the time. Regardless of who is playing the fox, and who is the bird. I’m not sure how the Tony nomination committee should deal with all this, but I’m sure we will see the spotlight shining on this revival and these two wondrous actors come May 2nd.
After seeing the gorgeous production, designed beautifully by Scott Pask (The Father, Waitress) the first time, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Linney and that amazing husky voiced delivery of those well written lines fit her just as perfectly as that spectacular black gown, deliciously designed by master costume designer, Jane Greenwood (Long Day’s Journey Into Night). Linney is as strong as strong can be, filling the stage with her presence and her confidence. Her command of that character and that living room is as powerful as Regina’s will to gain power and wealth over her siblings. This is a woman tired of playing second fiddle to her brother solely because of a woman’s place in the inheritance chain. This is the shrewdest of all the foxes in this greedy family, who’s familial motto could only be ‘MORE’.
Linney’s Regina is a formidable force to be reconciled with, and as expertly directed by David Sullivan (Cymbeline, The Country House), Birdie is no match, nor does she even try. Nixon embodies her to perfection in a flustered and self-conscious manner that transfixed me, but seemed to irritate most of the family of foxes around her. She’s the fluttering bird, trapped in a gilded cage, surrounded by hungry carnivores. They barely pay her any attention, laughing at her or batting her around for the pure sadistic pleasure of it. So fantastic is her jittery girl portrayal, that I couldn’t imagine the two in the reverse parts. They seem so perfectly attuned.
The other roles, played in the standard fashion of the same actor playing the same role each and every performance (how boring and lazy of them ?), all do solid work. Richard Thomas (Signature Theatre’s Incident at Vichy) is the sickly husband of Regina, Horace Giddens. Thomas is the perfect foil to both of these strong actresses playing either of their roles. He has the solidness of a good smart man, the fortitude of a thoughtful moral man, and the frailty of a sick one. Most likely the actor will also have a Tony nomination to contend with in his future as well. Michael McKean as the older brother, Ben, master fox of the family is as amusing and charming as he is devious and sly; a fox in sheep’s clothing. He is used to being the one in charge, the older brother who makes the rules, but when he clashes with Regina, it’s a fight worth seeing, and for Horace, it is battle he has been waited for, with an excited glee. McKean’s Ben also is wise enough to know when he is bested, and to take it with a grain of salt, and a smile. And wait for another chance. He seems to have taken to heart something their mother once said to Regina, not to Ben, that “softness and a smile” get you more in the end then anything else. Regina doesn’t abide by that.
Matching Horace and Birdie’s kindness and care, are both Alexandra, Regina’s daughter and Addie, the housekeeper, wonderfully portrayed by Francesca Carpanini (CSC’s Dead Poet’s Society) and Caroline Stefanie Clay (Doubt). Their bond is Alexandra’s saving grace, where as Birdie’s, it seems, comes at a price. Birdie’s spectacular Act III meltdown and warning to Alexandra is worth the admission in itself (two admissions to be honest, as both do the dramatic scene wonderfully). Birdie’s son, Lou, is another story. Not even loved by his mother, and as played by Michael Benz, he is an annoying brat and a fool, but I would say he never came off as sadistic or cruel, at least not in the way he is discussed by all around. The rest fill out their parts with ease, filling the sitting room that feels luxurious but also seems to be a cage to all those that live in that well appointed house. Horace doesn’t want to return. Regina wants to rise up out of the house into Chicago’s society. And Alexandra eventually wants escape.
I remember walking out of the theatre that first viewing thinking that the casting I saw was just perfection, but then I saw a picture of the same cast with Nixon wearing Regina’s black gown, and an innocent child-like Linney sitting on the couch in Birdie’s costume. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, and I thought, “WOW!” They looked perfect. Like two other actors than the two that I just saw. And yesterday, as chance would have it, I walked out of the theatre and turned the other way, and caught a glimpse of Linney in the regale black gown, and Nixon sweetly sitting beside in her pretty floral. The image projected me back to the previous week’s performance and my first impulse. I still think Linney as Regina as well as Nixon as Birdie, at least in Act I, fit their roles as perfectly as possible. But Act III, with these two fantastic actresses in reverse, makes the case that this alignment is just as perfect. Nixon’s Regina doesn’t hold court in Act I like Linney did, but Nixon’s shrewd manipulation and quieter intelligence in the final Act feels exactly right; more conniving and deeply disturbing. In the same way that Nixon’s Birdie in Act I had the exact right balance of insecurity and beaten down sweetness that the part demands, but Linney’s Act III rant was about the best thing I saw in either performances, the frustration and the pain as she beats her chest broke my heart.