No one doubted sparks would fly creating Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes.
Stockard Channing‹following Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis (in the film) and, subsequently, Anne Bancroft and Elizabeth Taylor as that belle of mean and avarice, Regina Giddens‹has a reputation for having a strong mind, which inevitably leads to clashes.
"Not necessarily," says O'Brien, artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. "Fireworks, yes! Stockard's someone with a firm grasp on the wheel, and damn good driving gloves. She's constructed a career by choosing roles that work for her."
Star and director agree Regina's uniqueness has yet to be fully explored. "She's thought of as older," notes O'Brien, "but she's probably 40." Wanting to create "explosive forces" for the late nineties, "we listened differently to the text. "Lilly's Regina wasn't a gorgon, an iron maiden or a figure of terror stalking up and down that staircase. And she isn't ours."
Channing concurs. "She was a perfectly modulated Southern woman who knew how to use her charm and beauty‹the only wiles she was educated to exploit." In Regina, she finds a striking resemblance. "My family raised me to think a girl has only one chance‹marry well. You know, have the house, kids, and live a very protected life. "
"We always see Regina in the rear-view mirror," adds O'Brien. "We don't see the vibrant woman she was and how she achieved what she achieved."
The same, happily, cannot be said of Channing, whose memorable performances have distinguished her as a versatile and charismatic actress. She first leapt off the screen in 1975's The Fortune and followed with her tough-talking Rizzo in the 1978 movie of Grease. She received acclaim in the Roundabout's revival of Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which, after its move to Broadway in 1986, won her a Best Actress Tony, and as Bunny, the blonde bimbo, in LCT's 1986 revival of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves (featured Tony nomination). In 1988 she starred in Alan Acykbourn's Woman in Mind, and in 1990 the role of an art patron unraveled by a con artist in Guare's Six Degrees of Separation brought her a Best Actress Tony nomination and an Olivier nomination in London. Guare was so impressed with Channing's Ouisa Kittredge that he stipulated she play the part (to an Oscar-nominated turn) in the film "because she was so sublime it would be stupid not to use her. " More recently, she returned to LCT as the riveting spymaster Hapgood in Tom Stoppard's 1994 play.
Susan Stockard of Park Avenue hadn't planned on being an actress until studying American history at Radcliffe, where she first smelled the greasepaint. At Harvard, she became hooked. Joining Theatre Company of Boston, she combined her maiden name with her married to become Stockard Channing. "My family discouraged me," she said, "but I didn't want to be one of those who say, 'If I could live it all over again, it would be different.' " Struggling four years for recognition, "I never doubted that when the opportunity came, I'd succeed."
In the midst of her second marriage, she went from Off-Broadway (in Elaine May and Terrence McNally's one-acts Adaption/Next) to a chorus spot in the 1971 New York Shakespeare Festival musical adaption of Two Gentlemen of Verona with lyrics by John Guare, who co-wrote the book. On the move to Broadway Channing understudied Julia (with a Puerto Rican accent). She was featured in 1973's No Hard Feelings, directed by Abe Burrows (his last play). It lasted one night. She co-starred in the Verona tour, which brought her excellent notices in Los Angeles.
After several bits, Channing broke into film in The Fortune, directed by Mike Nichols. "I thought it would be one of the greatest movies of all time. It wasn't." But the response to her dizzy Flapper heiress (whom Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty set out to murder for her money) "changed my life."
CBS touted her as "the new Mary Tyler Moore" in a sitcom. It was canceled after a year. To stay close to film, she starred in West Coast productions of Vanities and Alan Acykbourn's Absurd Person Singular.
In her subsequent film and TV choices, there've been box-office failures and Emmy nominations. Through it all, she kept returning to the stage. "Some instinct keeps pulling me back," she said. "It's where I extract my strength."
Channing says she doesn't find great differences between film, TV and stage. "Both have positives and negatives. When I'm in a collaborative situation with creative people, I don't care what it is. It just took me a while to realize you don't take the next thing that comes along."
In 1980, after several professional and personal disappointments, Channing returned to New York to start over, succeeding Lucie Arnaz in They're Playing Our Song and hand-picked by director Arvin Brown to co-star in the 1981 revival of Joe Egg at New Haven's Long Wharf. Four years later, opposite Jim Dale, she re-created the role of Sheila, the mother of a brain-damaged child, in New York.
Even after the later successes at LCT, there was disappointment. She obtained film rights to Hapgood, but in the end Stoppard decided it wasn't convertible.
"Onstage, it worked beautifully with its cinematic flow," she said.
"But it was a selective cinematic flow," O'Brien, who directed, observed, "not a literal one. I was able to evoke certain types of gritty filmic devices."
Channing had invested her money and six months of time and energy. O'Brien saw how depressed she was. He told her. "Susie, play a great part."
"Regina, for God's sake!"
Simultaneously they said, "Yes!"
Channing went to the Hellman estate the very next day. Soon all was set. But star and director aren't approaching this production as a mere revival.
"When you cast Stockard," said O'Brien, "you've got an event and an associate producer. She's powerful and brings a great gift: her amazing insight. And you better do your homework. However much you think you're ready, she's got untold reserves. Like Regina, she's a clear-sighted woman in a fuzzy world. From the hem of the gown to the pictures out front, she'll have an opinion. By and large, it'll be accurate!"