When I heard that the Donmar Warehouse were reviving Lillian Hellman's 1939 stodgy drama The Little Foxes (best known for its 1941 film incarnation with Bette Davis), my heart sank.
Its last London incarnation - at the Victoria Palace in the early 1980s - was a famous fiasco. It starred Elizabeth Taylor, about which the Daily Mail's then drama critic Jack Tinker reported, "Her first appearance in a cottage loaf wig and matching figure (had she by some mischance put on her bustle back to front?) was less than prepossessing". A subsequent mid-1990s Broadway revival that I saw of the play, with Stockard Channing, was little more energising, and I remember fleeing the theatre at the interval.
But when the Donmar announced Penelope Wilton as its star, I was suddenly more excited. Wilton, who previously graced this very stage with one of the most extraordinary performances I've ever seen by any actress, period, (in Pinter's A Kind of Alaska) was at once both selfless and heartfelt in that short piece.
Is there a more naturally naturalistic actress in Britain than Wilton? Her habit of inhabiting a character utterly is once again superbly demonstrated in The Little Foxes, in which as the resilient, resolute Regina Giddens - holding out for what's rightfully hers against her avaricious brothers Benjamin and Oscar (respectively David Calder and Matthew Marsh, both also superb) - she is stony faced in her determination. But her fidgeting fingers reveal an underlying anxiety and vulnerability. It is a performance of pure art and no artifice.
Wilton and the rest of director Marianne Elliott's well-orchestrated company (sometimes dodgy accents notwithstanding) animate this classic melodrama with a theatrical urgency I've never seen in it before. A superb scene between Wilton and her hated, dying husband Horace (Peter Guinness) detonates with a great dramatic charge.
But though atmospherically set by designer Lez Brotherston, the play itself isn't always as realistic or convincing. Which makes me all the more thankful that, its star, at least, always is. Wilton makes the evening resonate.