Lillian Hellman is back in town.
The late, great American playwright is getting her due at Arena Stage with a two-play festival, the first of which, like Hellman herself, is an American classic. That would be “The Little Foxes,” a biting, vivid play about a Southern family rotating viciously and avariciously around acquiring money and property.
Arena has a tradition of festivals focusing on the giants of American theater, including Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee. The other play in the Lillian Hellman Festival is “A Watch on the Rhine,” coming in February, starring Marsha Mason.
“I can’t think of a better way to kick off the Lillian Hellman Festival than with Kyle Donnelly directing a wonderful cast led by Marg Helgenberger,” Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith said. “What a great combination of women artists. All of them fierce, fearless and talented.”
“Foxes,” with its memorable star part of Regina Giddens, has been revived often. It has achieved legendary status for a number of reasons, including star turns by Tallulah Bankhead in the stage version and Bette Davis in the classic film version, which also featured Teresa Wright and Herbert Marshall.
In Washington, the part has been tackled by Elizabeth Taylor at the Kennedy Center and by Elizabeth Ashley in a Shakespeare Theatre Company production.
While the play has Regina burning and conniving at the center to win out by any means necessary in a family where money, power, property and land are usually held by men, it’s also an ensemble play, with strong parts for strong actors.
One of them is Regina’s older brother Benjamin Hubbard, played by Edward Gero, a key figure in Washington’s theater community and no stranger to playing iconic characters, especially and most recently at Arena Stage.
Benjamin is part of a mix of family adversaries and schemers that includes Regina’s husband Horace Giddens, played by Jack Willis; Oscar Hubbard, played by Gregory Linington; and Birdie Hubbard, Oscar’s alcoholic wife, played by Isabel Keating.
“Benjamin is kind of a master villain,” Gero said. “These days, you don’t see many of Hellman’s works any more, so it’s good she’s getting her due. This is a terrific play to perform in. It’s like Chekhov with a plot.”
Gero himself has built a 30-year career in Washington, arriving here from New York in 1983. A multiple Helen Hayes Award winner, he has excelled in a astonishingly diverse array of plays and characters. The gallery includes Shakespearean roles at the Folger and the Shakespeare; appearances at Studio Theater, where he was directed by Joy Zinoman in “American Buffalo”; and stints at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where he played Mark Rothko in “Red” and Kent to Stacy Keach’s Lear. That particular production of “Lear” was also staged at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and “Red” became a major hit at Arena Stage.
Arena was the setting for one of Gero’s greatest successes, in John Strand’s 2015 play about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, “The Originalist.”
“I met him, he invited me to have lunch with him in his chamber, I think he was a friend,” Gero said of Scalia. “His death was a great shock to me, as it was for the country.” Scalia shared a common New Jersey, Catholic upbringing. “He had a great sense of humor, he was smart, had a major intellect. I was very grateful for having known him in this way and to have been able to portray him. But the play didn’t have a political axe to grind. It was about a human being, and about how we have come to this partisan political situation in the country that you see now.
“I’ve acted in other places like Chicago,” Gero said. “But to me, this is home, this is where I live and teach [at George Mason University], where my wife, Marijke Ebbinge, and I raised our son Christian [an award-winning sound and audio designer]. I think it’s a very special place, and over time, there’s all these relationships that have built up among the members of that community.”
Many younger actors consider Gero a generous mentor, including Craig Wallace, who happens to be taking over Gero’s long-standing role as Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theater.
“We’ve known each other for years, for a long time, he’s a good friend,” Gero said of Wallace.
Talking here and there, formally or just passing in a theater lobby, you get a sense of a gifted man who has never contained his curiosity about human beings, about the theater, about parts executed and parts still to come. He’s made forays into musicals — “Sweeney Todd” at Round House and “Hello, Dolly” at Ford’s. We remember chatting with him about Thornton Wilder, about actors young and old, about his son, talking about Scrooge as well as Rothko, Scalia and, now, Benjamin, brother to Regina.
Actors, it always turns out, contain multitudes.