By Brian Robin
Director Lisa Peterson Loves the Big Challenge of "The Little Foxes"
Lisa Peterson loves Lillian Hellman. She loves returning to SCR, where she directed such critically acclaimed works as the original 1996 world premiere of Collected Stories by Donald Margulies, The Madwoman in the Volvo by Sandra Tsing Loh, Culture Clash (Still) In America and Aubergine by Julia Cho.
She loved everything about the idea of returning to direct Hellman’s The Little Foxes—except directing The Little Foxes.
Enter SCR Artistic Director David Ivers, with an offer—and an audacious concept—Peterson couldn’t refuse. Directing Hellman’s signature work in rotating repertory with Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Alternating performances with overlapping, A-list casts, the same set modified for each performance and the opportunity to work in tandem with another director—Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who is helming Appropriate.
“To be honest, I definitely feel like I don’t know if I would need to direct The Little Foxes if it was on its own, because I have seen it a couple of times in very successful productions,” she said. “I do love Lillian Hellman’s writing, but it’s harder for me to take on projects when I’ve seen them fully and successfully done and I don’t think to myself, ‘I could do it better.’
“But in this case, because it was part of this rep idea, I thought, ‘OK, this does sound interesting because that’s challenging. How are we going to figure out a physical world that can hold both plays. … When David first told me about it, I thought ‘That seems very, very difficult, and therefore, I’m interested.’”
And thus, SCR had the talents of one of America’s premier theatre directors back at the helm. A two-time Obie Award winner, Peterson has overseen productions at many of the country’s most acclaimed theatres. She was the resident director at the Mark Taper Forum for 10 years, directing such works as Chavez Ravine, Water & Power and The Body of Bourne. Peterson was an associate director at La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory, where she directed Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine.
This spring, Peterson will make her Broadway directorial debut at the Belasco Theatre with Good Night, Oscar by Doug Wright. The play stars Sean Hayes as concert pianist, raconteur and bon vivant Oscar Levant.
Before then, Peterson is sinking her artistic teeth into The Little Foxes, which she calls the perfect play for SCR.
“You’re going to be talking to a group of people for whom theatre is important,” she said. “When I was working at La Jolla or the Taper, I’d come see plays here. This is an audience hungry for theatre and the kind of conversation you find in theatre. This is a smart audience, they like to see plays with meaty material and this play—Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes—is a good, old fashioned three-act play. I feel fairly confident the audience will be along for the ride because they love good theatre and they love coming here.”
Seeing Peterson direct an American classic is a rare treat. By her own admission, she doesn’t do the traditional three-act play you probably read in high school or college. She’s directed Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, along with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie for Actors Theatre of Louisville. But outside of her directing several George Bernard Shaw productions, which she says is “not bad training for Lillian Hellman,” Peterson is a more contemporary director.
“I mostly feel like I do plays that are not set in drawing rooms,” she said. “Figuring out where the coffee cup goes and how does breakfast get served, those kinds of things. That’s not my métier.”
Her métier for The Little Foxes is to find a perfect medium between the two productions she saw: Ivo van Hove’s 2010 version at the New York Theatre Workshop and Daniel Sullivan’s 2017 production at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Peterson described van Hove’s production as “very physical, stripped of all its place and time, engaging and pretty violent.” In the next breath, she summed up Sullivan’s, which starred Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney as a “classic production done in a very fine way … what I would call ‘frilly.’”
Peterson is the perfect navigator for such a journey. Her firm grasp of Hellman’s work and her ability to channel one of the 20th century’s great wordsmiths in her cast illustrates why she is one of the most sought-after directors in the country.
“She (Hellman) wants her characters to be smart. You have to find the way her comedy works, which isn’t laugh-out-loud comedy, but behavioral comedy, witticisms,” Peterson said. “Her drama is always right on the line between melodrama and great American tragedy. That’s always tricky with her stuff. You have to make sure you don’t spill into melodrama. How do you do that? I don’t know.
“But she writes a lot asking what’s wrong with melodrama? That’s life. And I find that challenging with her work.”
What Peterson doesn’t find challenging is working with her Voices of America directing cohort, Turner Sonnenberg. The ability to collaborate with another director is why Peterson eagerly accepted this challenge. The chemistry the two bring to the productions is real, visceral and visible to all.
“It’s one of my favorite parts of the whole thing,” she said, describing the collaboration. “Directors never get to talk to each other. They never get to sit in each other’s room unless you’re young and assisting someone. If you’ve been at it for a while like I have, it’s amazing to have another director to talk to. It could be about big things, particular challenges about a moment in the play or an actor or a design thing. But it’s great to have someone in the same boat with you.”