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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
It took later writers to realize the dramatic potential of his stories for stage and screen. Case in point: The Heiress, the 1997 hit play Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted from the James 1880 novella Washington Square. The pair's smart craftsmanship incorporated James' incisive dialogue into the combination romance and psychological thriller. They also renamed it, to shift the focus from the story's location to its financially well off but personality challenged main character. The Heiress thus represents page to stage adaptation and the well-made drama that dominated that era at their very best.
The title role won an Oscar for Olivia DeHaviland in the 1949 movie version and the first of two Tony awards for Cherry Jones in the play's last Broadway revival in 1995 (Katie Finneran who's currently Miss Hannigan in the Broadway revival of Annie, played the maid in that production. Virginia Krull serves Dr. Slper's sherry with equal charm) .Now the story of the painfully shy, awkward, naive young woman smitten with a charming but poor young man is back on Broadway. It's likely to make Jessica Chastain, an actress best known for her film and, TV work more of a live theater regular.
To use Catherine Sloper's favorite adjective, this new production offers a pretty wonderful old-fashioned good time. Henry James's words still retain their power. While this doesn't seem like a play to appeal to Moises Kaufman, he expertly directs the blue ribbon cast to capture every psychological nuance and the considerable humor without resorting to trendy 21st century references. The stagecraft is gorgeous. In short, while we've had a plethora of revivals, this one makes a strong case for not relegating the well-made genre — at least not the one with solid literary roots — to the theatrical dustbin. At close to three hours, this revival flies by more entertainingly than a lot of today's stylishly trim ninety-minute plays.
Whether you've seen a previous stage production or caught the movie on TCM, you won't want to miss visiting Derek McLane's richly detailed replica of Dr. Austin Sloper's elegant mid-19th century town house on Washington Square circa 1850. While McLane is one of New York's busiest and most versatile set designers, I could have sworn that the Sloper townhouse was the work of John Lee Beatty who has a reputation for creating this sort of rich milieu. (Beatty actually did design the 1995 production). The plush setting is further enhanced by Albert Wolsky's authentic and lush costumes for the genteel residents and visitors.
As anyone who saw her in The Help can confirm, Jessic a Chastain, like other actresses playing the plain Jane title character, is hardly an ugly duckling, But then Catherine Sloper's awkwardness, and plainness is more a case of being psychologically diminished by her too judgmental, unloving father than being ugly. With her own hair hidden beneath an unflattering wig by wig wizard Paul Huntley, hat allows Chastain, to evoke spinsterish mediocrity with her facial expression, body language. She impressively conveys the tragedy of a woman who, raised in a less self-esteem killing environment, could well be capable of being wonderful, rather than too timid to nurture her innate wit
David Straithairn walks in the footsteps of Basil Rathbone, Ralph Richardson and Philip Bosco as the doctor who, in his inability to let go of grief over his beautiful wife, gives the daughter who survived all the advantages of his wealth but without the warmth and genuine affection she yearns for. His hope that she will somehow grow up to make up for his years as a lonely widower is an impossible dream that understandably has a crippling effect on his daughter. Straithairn admirably achieves the difficult task of making the stern Doctor understandable yet unsympathetic to the very end. His confrontations with Morris Townsend, the suitor he sees as a fortune hunter totally lacking in his own work ethic.
For many in the audience who became Dan Stevens fans courtesy of Downton Abbey , his playing the handsome, luxury loving fortune hunter Morris Townsend is the big draw. At the performance I attended, his arrival brought a rush of sighs and applause from female audience members.
Stevens is appropriately charming and amusing, perhaps a tad too much so, but his instant and aggressive pursuit leaves little doubt that Dr. Sloper is right in his assessment of his character and intentions. His portrayal deepens and becomes more interesting as he must manipulate Catherine to remain convinced of his sincerity yet keep her from breaking with the father and forfeiting her inheritance. Even as Dr. Sloper reveals Morris's careless disregard of his widowed sister's needs, he manages to avoid being an out and out villain. Sure, he would probably spend Catherine's fortune too freely, but living with him would certainly be more joyous for the love-starved young woman than life with her father has been.
What really accounts for the play's durability is its powerful portrait of an emotionally damaged woman who frees herself from the need to win the approval of the father who could never look at her without blaming her for her mother's death, and whose resentment is deepened by her being so disappointingly unlike her lovely and graceful mother. Ultimately, what fascinates is not so much the love story but watching Catherine empower herself to be the master of her own fate. While there's never any doubt about the outcome of her relationship with both the father she allowed to diminish her and the lover she allowed to deceive her, the fascination and suspense derives from how and when it's all going to unfold.
Predictable as it all is, the Jamesian wit and characterizations still engage us emotionally. The play is at its most painfully compelling during the scene when Dr. Sloper, in his role as his daughter's protector , finally abandons any pretense of covering up his disdain and disrespect. When Catherine. persists in her conviction that it's not her money that made Morris want her, he brutally counters with "What else then, Catherine? Your beauty? Your grace? Your charm? Your quick tongue and subtle wit?" In disgust he adds, "You embroider neatly." No wonder that she can explain the cruel streak that is part of her final act with "I've been taught by masters!"
Dr. Sloper's sisters, Lavinia Penniman (Judith Ivey) and Elizabeth Allmond (Caitlin O'Conell) are helpless witnesses to this incredibly brutal encounter between father and daughter. The expression on their faces reflects our own horror.
The sisters are among the ensemble standouts . Judith Ivey is especially delightful as the flirty widow who has been asked by her brother to extend her visit, hopefully to help her niece overcome her shyness. While her bubbly personality doesn't rub off on Catherine, she is as smitten with Morris as her niece and thus an active aide-de-camp in fostering his suit. The other sister is less romantic. However, as her realism has made her accept a less than ideal young man, Arthur Townsend (Kieran Campion), as her pretty but flighty daughter Marian's (Molly Camp) fiance, so she feels overlooking Morris Townsend's mercenary motifs might nevertheless be a fair trade-off for Catherine's happiness.
The transparency of Morris's intentions and the ending is too facile for The Heiress to be a great play. But it' nevertheless a still absorbing theatrical experience.
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