The Heiress is one of those well made plays from the 1940s that takes its time to tell its absorbing story of Catherine Sloper, a lady living a very dull life in her father’s house on Washington Square in the New York of 1850.
Her Aunt Lavinia, a decent but simple minded chatterbox, is visiting and as the play begins, all is running smoothly, particularly for the man of the house. Dr. Austin Sloper has a flourishing medical practice and two or three house servants who keep his magnificent town house in ship shape condition. His daughter is a disappointment to him, for she has not emerged as the vibrant, charming, outgoing and poised woman her mother had been. But in all senses, the doctor’s house is in order, and he means to keep it that way.
He offers little in the way of affection to his devoted daughter, but as long as she sticks to her embroidery, he doesn’t give her much thought. He’s fulfilled his paternal obligation, he feels, by providing for her in his will. When he passes, she is to receive an income of some $20,000 a year from his estate, to add to the $10,000 she already has from her late mother.
Deeper feelings on each of these three central characters are buried, and this is the play, based on the novel of the same name by Henry James, that Ruth and Augustus Goetz have well crafted to reveal those feelings. It was a success in the 1940s with a cast that starred Wendy Hiller and Basil Rathbone, enjoying a run of 410 performances on Broadway. It was followed by an equally successful film which starred Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson. Cherry Jones and Philip Bosco had another long run with it in 1995.
Now here it is again, in what may be the most satisfying production of them all. It is now more of an ensemble piece than it’s been, primarily because Wendy Hiller, Olivia deHavilland and Cherry Jones were so powerful the other characters seemed to be there to support her in the tragedy that took almost three hours to unfold, in three suspenseful acts.
In this production, it’s been trimmed a bit by cutting one of the intermissions. Jessica Chastain, the current Catherine, whose film name was undoubtedly the force that gathered a consortium of producers, is not playing a star turn. Her approach to the role is somewhat different; it has a grounded base, and she is very effective in playing it in a less grand manner than did the others. But she plays truthfully and with many colors — it was interesting to see her face reflect joy, confusion, sadness, excitement, often during the course of one speech spoken to her.
Consistent with the style of this outing, the casting of Dan Stevens, who is now familiar to us through his role as the young scion in the BBC’s “Downton Abbey,” brings the catalistic character of Morris Townsend, Catherine’s suitor, into sharper focus. Both actors are totally at home in the period and comfortable with the more formalized speech of the time; as a result their scenes crackle.
David Strathairn, a gem of a character actor, currently strong as William Seward in the film “Lincoln,” brings a different approach to Catherine’s father, Dr. Sloper. Philip Bosco, Ralph Richardson, Basil Rathbone have all played him as a severe and instantly dominating master of the house. Straithairn is gentler, not instantly recognizable as the inflexible and frustrated control freak he becomes when crossed.
The fourth central character in the play is Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia Penniman, and though some lovely actresses have played her, including Jan Miner, Patricia Collinge and Miriam Hopkins in the film, Judith Ivey here elevates Aunt Penniman from a supporting player to a full fledged member of the quartet that tell this tale. She is positively radiant; she wins us completely as she tries without success to have this story have the fairy tale ending she so desperately wanted to see.
Moisés Kaufman must get credit for the consistency of style onstage, and that not only includes all the performances, but the designs for scenery, costume and lighting. The vastness of this house, the dimly lit corners and corridors, the magic that only a candle can bring to a solitary walk up the staircase — they are all there, and all contribute to our enjoyment. This is one heiress who never pursued happiness. She almost found it anyway and the surprising lesson of this fine piece of theatre is that money is the one thing that closed all doors leading to it.
The Heiress is onstage at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his more than 60 year career on Broadway as a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has recently written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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