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2 Stars Share The Stage, And The Roles, In 'Little Foxes'

Cynthia Nixon (left) and Laura Linney alternate playing the roles of Regina (left) and Birdie in <em>The Little Foxes</em>.
Joan Marcus
Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Cynthia Nixon (left) and Laura Linney alternate playing the roles of Regina (left) and Birdie in The Little Foxes.

Lillian Hellman's 1939 melodrama The Little Foxes has two great roles for actresses over the age of 40. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon fill those roles in a new revival on Broadway ... but with one big twist: Linney and Nixon play both roles and switch off at different performances.

It started when Linney got a call from the Manhattan Theatre Club, asking her if she'd like to play Regina Giddens, the steely character at the center of The Little Foxes. Tallulah Bankhead introduced the role and it's been played by actresses from Bette Davis to Elizabeth Taylor.

"Women don't get these parts very often," Linney says. "This is a great part."

But she was also attracted to a smaller role in the play — Birdie, Regina's abused, alcoholic sister-in-law. "I had always loved Birdie. There was something about Birdie that I inherently understood," Linney says.

So, Linney had an idea: What if she and her friend could find a way to share both roles? Nixon was more than game.

"I mean, who does that?" Nixon asks. "Nobody does that: 'I have a great part. Would you like to do it half the time?' "

Look carefully: Linney (left) and Nixon have switched roles.
Joan Marcus / Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Look carefully: Linney (left) and Nixon have switched roles.

For director Dan Sullivan, who's worked with both women separately, these two actresses in these two roles makes perfect sense. "They both have within their skillset, the sort of girlishness of Birdie and the huge strength and power of Regina," Sullivan explains.

Linney and Nixon each bring their own different interpretation to the roles. They emphasize different words; one may stand to deliver a line, while the other sits.

Great parts are meant to be played; they're not meant to be owned, they're not meant to be claimed. They're meant to be played!

"Great parts are meant to be played; they're not meant to be owned, they're not meant to be claimed. They're meant to be played!" Linney says.

And it's not just about getting a crack at two great parts.

"It's fascinating to see how one person and their interpretation or nuances of quality can shift and change an entire dynamic," Linney says. "I found that all very interesting; what does that do to everybody else? What does that do to the play?"

And, of course, how do you rehearse two actresses switching roles? Sullivan says he added a week to the rehearsal schedule and both women were in the room throughout the entire process.

"We had never done it before, so we didn't quite know how to do it," Sullivan says. "And thank goodness both Cynthia and Laura are very generous people and look out for one another. So, you know, it would be, for instance, Laura would come to me during rehearsals and say, you know, Cynthia actually hasn't done this part of the play yet. You should give her a chance. Or vice versa."

Each character in Hellman's turn-of-the-20th-century melodrama responds in a different way to a world ruled by men, says Nixon.

"When you're playing Regina you're playing someone who is at the center of everything," Nixon says. "And when you're playing Birdie, you're always on the outskirts and you're always sort of forgotten about."

Ultimately, both actresses think The Little Foxes, which looks at an avaricious Southern family, is surprisingly timely.

"Given where we are now and given where our culture is now — particularly looking at money and power and what do you value and what do you not value — it's sort of shockingly right on point," Linney says.

The show is playing through June and if you're really curious to see how different Linney and Nixon are in the roles, do what I did, and make it a double header — with matinee and evening performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.

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