Leading Ladies

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Lillian Hellman's tart, southern shocker The Little Foxes first appeared in Los Angeles in January of 1941.

It ran for a week at the now demolished Biltmore Theater starring Tallulah Bankhead, who created the leading role of Regina Hubbard on Broadway. Bankhead toured with The Little Foxes for over a year, touring 125 cities in the US and Canada. The newspapers treated her appearance like a state visit, counting down to her arrival in LA. Bankhead was already notorious actress, but Regina was the part that finally merged her celebrity with her talent. The Los Angeles Times critic wrote that it was a “masterful” performance, but seven months later, when the Samuel Goldwyn film version opened, Regina was played by Bette Davis.

Such is the life of an actress, even a major star. The part of Regina no doubt appeals to actresses of some celebrity, because she is a woman who knows her own greatness, but who depends on powerful men to let that greatness flourish. In subsequent Broadway revivals, Regina has been played by Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor (who also toured here in LA), and Stockard Channing.

Here in this first major LA revival since Bankhead at the Biltmore and Liz Taylor at the Ahmanson, Regina is played by Kelly McGillis, who's known best for taking Tom Cruise's breath away as a towering flight instructor in the movie Top Gun.

When McGillis makes her entrance at the Pasadena Playhouse, it feels like a grand throwback to the 1940's. Her tall body, regal posture and rich voice are all positively Hepburn-esqe. She's a smart choice for the role and her Regina promises great things. Unfortunately in the second act, McGillis' Regina doesn't grow into the vicious, clawing fox she needs to be. We see only the elegant façade, not the scrappy, southern belle underneath.

little_foxes.jpgLuckily Hellman's 1939 play and Damaso Rodriguez's faithful direction ensures that by the ending of The Little Foxes we understand just what Regina is doing and how it won't stop the progress of a new century. This is one of the Playhouse's better productions of late. Like McGillis, the cast is always interesting, if not revelatory. All of Hellman's characters, from the feckless son to the loyal servant, are vividly rendered. Rodriguez's directing feels more like curating, but with this old-fashioned family melodrama, I suspect that's not a bad thing. The one performance that implies that what's going on with the Hubbards is representative of a larger shift in society is provided by Steve Vinovich in the role of Ben Hubbard. Vinovich is about as Southern as Flatbush Avenue Knish, but it doesn't matter. His accent is consistent and he is flawless as the smooth, calculating businessman who knows that southern gentility is no longer a way of life, but rather a marketing gimmick.

When Donald Margulies' 1996 play Collected Stories first appeared in Los Angeles, the role of Ruth Steiner was performed by Linda Lavin at the Geffen Playhouse. This is a role, which like Regina Hubbard, seems to attract Grande Dames. Before Lavin, Ruth was played by Uta Hagen in the play's New York Premiere; but before Lavin or Hagen played Margulies' motherly short story writer, the role of Ruth Steiner was originated by Kandis Chappell at South Coast Repertory.

Chappell is back at SCR this summer reprising this role in a revival of Collected Stories directed by Martin Benson. Stories is a solid two-hander about the blurry lines that separate fiction, memoir, biography and theft. It's pretty conventional, but well observed, well written, and if performed with conviction, pretty unsettling. Chappell is not as larger-than-life as Lavin — who seemed as if she could dominate most Manhattan literary salons; instead, she's more realistic. Chappell's Ruth is someone who you believe spends all her time in a small apartment writing. It's a quieter version of Ruth, but no less powerful.

Collected Stories runs through June 14 at South Coast Rep; The Little Foxes continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 28.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Kandis Chappell (L) and Melanie Lora in Donald Margulies' Collected Stories. Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR