Thomas Ostermeier’s revival of American playwright Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at the Schaubühne begins with a dinner party: A German family, united and happy, entertain an American businessman who promises to make them all very rich. There’s only one problem…
Brothers Ben and Oscar, who inherited their father’s business, need one more investor for their transatlantic venture. To keep control of the company within the family, they want their sister Regina to convince her sickly husband Horace to be the third investor.
The three siblings are equally ambitious. Ben (played by Moritz Gottwald) is smart, pragmatic and hides his greed with fine talk. Oscar (David Ruland) is not as subtle and, the weakest of the three, has an inferiority complex that manifests itself in his tyrannical abuse of his wife Birdie and son Leo. But Regina (Nina Hoss), whose desire to escape her miserable marriage and the provincial life that her father’s decision not to give her an inheritance has condemned her to, is the most driven of all.
Regina manipulates the people and situations around her with skill, switching from charm to blackmail. Hoss portrays her with ice-queen composure, negotiating percentages and luring her husband home from hospital, but when it becomes clear that Horace has no intention investing, fissures appear. Regina’s brothers hatch a murky plot to get the additional funds, and we realise that once more, Regina is being disempowered by the men around her.
Indeed, this is a play about women, and the tragic consequences that follow when they are denied self-determination, like Oscar’s aristocratic wife Birdie (Ursina Lardi).
Lardi steals the show with her portrayal of a musically talented woman who has turned to drink, going from breathless enthusiasm to writhing about on a floor – someone whose wings have been clipped by marriage.
But Ostermeier’s decision to move the play from its original 1900 Alabama setting to modern Germany is jarring. It provokes questions such as why do these two women – Regina and Birdie – stay in their marriages? Why does Regina, so intelligent and calculating, not figure out other ways to do what she wants? Why did her father leave her out of her will? While it is believable that maybe one of these things could have happened in a modern German family, as the questions pile up, they interfere with one’s suspension of belief. After all, there is a big difference between the American South over 100 years ago and Germany now.
The skill of the actors distract from these questions of logic and that final moment when Regina stands alone on stage, having gotten what she wants at the cost of her familial relationships, is still potent.