Laura Linney was contemplating taking on the leading role of Regina Giddens in a proposed Manhattan Theatre Club revival of The Little Foxes when a thought struck her: Cynthia Nixon has always wanted to play Regina. As it happened, Linney herself was also struck by the smaller character of Birdie. And so a plan was born.
A few phone calls later, and MTC’s artistic director Lynne Meadow was calling Nixon with a “crazy idea.” Nixon initially thought that was her way of preparing to offer her the supporting role of Birdie—instead, Meadow proposed Linney’s plan: that both actors alternate as Regina and Birdie. “Lynne, that is a crazy idea!” was Nixon’s initial response. Her second was an immediate acceptance.
Opening April 19 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre and directed by Daniel Sullivan, this marks the venerable play’s fifth Broadway production—the first in 20 years. Lillian Hellman’s Southern drama about greed, murder, and the price that one pays to survive offers plenty of juicy roles, but none as memorable as Regina and Birdie, the woman who will go to any lengths to achieve financial independence and her fragile, much-abused sister-in-law.
“I thought it would be fun, quite frankly,” Linney says. “How does it affect a company? How does it affect a narrative? How do you have two experienced actresses who are going to approach things in a different, nuanced way, watching each other do it? What happens? Really, what happens?”
Both women lavish praise on the other and on the rest of the cast, who must constantly recalibrate their performances depending on who is playing whom. But both are very private actors who take their craft seriously. “Putting a role together is really fun, and it’s very personal and it’s very sacred,” Linney says. “I think there’s a real respect about letting each of us have free reign to do that and then to sit back and go, ‘Oh wow. Look what she’s doing! That’s amazing.’”
Adds Nixon, “And we’re lucky enough to have such a great person opposite us in both of those things!”