By: Tim Treanor
The Heiress, Olney Theater Center
Reviewing a show like Olney Theater’s The Heiress presents almost insurmountable difficulties. The purpose of a review is to describe a play’s successes and failures, evaluate them against each other, and come to a reasoned conclusion about the worth of the enterprise. For The Heiress, there are no failures. There are no flaws. It is one dazzling success after another. Director Join Going has scored an amazing accomplishment. Imagine that you’ve somehow stolen into Dr. Austin Sloper’s home, and hidden yourself in a way which permitted you to spy on their intimate lives. As you watch the family confront the crisis which will ultimately cause them to disintegrate, their secret hearts, opaque from each other, are transparent to you. That’s good theater. That’s The Heiress, as performed by Olney.
Let us begin with James Wolk’s fabulous set. Under normal circumstances, one doesn’t notice a set unless the play is otherwise disappointing. But Wolk’s set would have been noticed as backdrop to the creation of the universe. It is an exquisitely rendered, detailed reproduction of the mid-19th-century drawing room of a wealthy physician. Realism counts for Wolk: the upper reaches of the wainscoting around the passage into the hallway are dirty with soot, as they would be in the days where the heat and light came from coal, wood and kerosene. Ironically, his only unrealistic touch was his most effective: his back wall is a delicate scrim, which allows us to see characters before they emerge on the scene. That decision heightens suspense and sweetens the sense of conflict. Or what about the sound (Jarett Pisani) and lighting (Nancy Schertler) design? Every aural note, from the clop-clop-clopping of carriages as they approach and leave the house to the sweet and delicate tones of the offstage spinet, rings authentically. Schlertler’s lighting, from the dawn-to-dusk sun coming from outside the windows to the flickering candles, lit one by one, is just as authentic. But: the play’s the thing, isn’t it? Henry James was a master of dialogue, and playwrights Augustus and Ruth Goetz wisely left most of the lines from his novella, Washington Square, intact. In the play, Dr. Sloper (Ted van Griethuysen) confronts as a dilemma something most of his contemporaries would have considered a blessing. Morris Townsend (Jeffries Thaiss), a handsome, charming (though impoverished) young man seeks the hand of his daughter, Catherine (Effie Johnson), in marriage. But Sloper is convinced that Townsend is feigning love because he wants to put his hands on Catherine’s income — $30,000 a year, after Slocum dies. (By way of comparison, the President of the United States earned $25,000 at the time.) Why does he think so? Because – and this is the awful secret he must keep from Catherine – Slocum considers his daughter to be plain, dull, stupid, socially inept, and in short so undesirable that only a fortune-hunter would be interested in her. Sloper, who can’t help blaming Catherine for the childbirth death of his beloved wife, carries anger in his pockets, and it is as accessible to him as his cigars or his brandy. But the tragic truth is that he is substantially correct. Catherine, as played by the prodigiously gifted Johnson, is as comfortable with other human beings as a rabbit might be with a boa constrictor, were the rabbit forced to serve the snake tea and to amuse it with witty observations. Her native intelligence and good sense dives underground in the presence of others, beginning with her formidable father. This complex, subtle setup assures a tragic conclusion, and James, as mediated by the Goetzes, delivers powerfully. For one thing, it provides a vehicle for actors to show their skill, and this superb cast takes full advantage of it. van Griethuysen, who having previously played Lear for the Shakespeare Theater may have cornered the market on powerful men who misunderstand their daughters, could have made Slocum a gruff, tyrannical antagonist. Instead, he gives a layered and nuanced performance which permits us to see the love and fear he feels for his daughter. Thaiss’ smiling Townsend, who seems capable of almost any variety of mendaciousness, is an actor being played by an actor. Thaiss allows Townsend’s true personality to come through only in his last desperate moments. And the wonderful Halo Wines gives an unforgettable performance as Slocum’s sister Lavinia, whose flibbertigibbet mannerisms hide a scheming, calculating mind. The rest of the cast – but why go on? The box office is 301.924.3400. It runs through March 12. Enough said. The Heiress runs Tuesday through Sunday. Tuesday and Sunday shows are at 7.30 p.m. except for February 28 and March 12. All other shows start at eight. In addition, there are matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and on March 9. For more information or to order tickets, see www.olneytheatre.org.