On Valentine’s Day this year, Arena Stage will open The Heiress, adapted from the 1880 Henry James novel Washington Square by playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz. While the play may seem at first glance to be your typical romance, director Seema Sueko feels the story is very apropos for the Feast of St. Valentine.
“It’s not your traditional love story, but it’s a revolutionary thriller of the heart,” she says.
The Heiress follows the tale of wealthy heiress Catherine Sloper, an awkward young woman who has struggled her entire life under the disapproving scrutiny of her father, but finds hope for true love when an unexpected suitor comes for her hand. However, betrayal rears its ugly head and Catherine realizes she must take control of her own destiny.
“The more I enveloped myself with the script, the more delicious it became,” Sueko says. “It’s so wonderfully crafted. Ruth and Augustus Goetz have written a play that’s such a treat for a director to work on.”
The origins of the story came from a piece of gossip that originally was told by an actress to Henry James. She told the literary legend about how her brother was getting involved with a plain looking girl who was very wealthy. James then spun that into a novella in the late 19th century.
“When it was just a piece of gossip, the young woman at the center of it didn’t have a perspective; when James wrote Washington Square, he very much, in the end, condemned Catherine to a life of solitude and sadness,” Sueko says. “When Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted it to the stage, they then gave her language near the end of the play, like ‘I can do anything now.’ They gave her agency.”
Sueko didn’t know much about the play when taking it on, but upon learning those origins, she thought it was a perfect play for her to direct.
The Arena Stage award-winning, all-female design team builds upon that growing agency by leaning into the questions of “when and how does Catherine make her own choice?”
“So much of my past directing has been contemporary plays, and often by writers of color, so for me, part of diversifying my own body of work means deep-diving into classics,” Sueko says. “The Heiress is such a delicious classic with a wonderful female protagonist at the center of it.”
Laura C. Harris was cast as Catherine, and Sueko was very impressed with the actress from the first audition.
“In each audition, I will typically give some adjustments to the actor and see what the chemistry is like between myself and the actor—do I speak a language they can interpret and understand, and vice versa,” she says. “Right away, I could see Laura is an incredibly smart actor with a very keen instrument. Working with her in rehearsals, my admiration for her has just grown and grown.”
Produced by Arena Stage
February 8 – March 10, 2019
Details and tickets
The Heiress marks the third show at Arena Stage that Sueko has directed, following her acclaimed runs of The Price and Smart People, though this will be her first time directing in the round on the Fichandler Stage.
“Anytime a space is new to you, there are always things to learn about it,” she says. “Our production team is a wealth of information, as is Molly, and a few of the actors in the show have performed in the space as well so they bring that visceral knowledge.”
The director also brought on Jan Gist, who has worked in the round a great deal, as a voice and text coach, to ensure that the story is conveyed in its best light, no matter where in the space the actors are speaking their lines.
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Sueko became deputy artistic director at Arena Stage in the summer of 2016, working under artistic director Molly Smith.
“Molly is a tremendous leader, a really brilliant artist and always has terrific notes for next steps,” Sueko says. “She’s just really good at seeing where you’re at, understanding clearly what my vision is for the show, and providing a couple of kernels of ideas that motivate, inspire and help me sink my teeth into elevating this production to the next level.”
Growing up, Sueko had two passions—theater and politics—and she was always encouraged to pursue the arts. In college, she majored in international relations with a focus on Middle East politics, but while at grad school, she realized she missed being involved with theater.
“That balanced me out while in undergrad, and when it was gone, I realized that was the thing I wanted to do instead,” she says. “I felt that I had a greater opportunity to affect change through performance rather than through academia. I started acting in Chicago and that got me on my way.”
Before joining the staff two-and-a-half year ago, Sueko had a connection to the theater and Smith that goes back even further. Back in 2013, she received the inaugural leadership one-on-one grant from Theatre Communications Group, which allowed her to be in mentorship with someone for a year.
“I picked Molly and spent January through November here at Arena Stage as a visiting artist, and that’s where we really had a chance to see how well we could work together; she was a tremendous mentor,” she says. “From there, I got the opportunity to become associate artistic director at The Pasadena Playhouse, and a couple of years into it, this opportunity opened up at Arena.”
So many things, Sueko shares, drew her back, beginning with the chance to work once more with Smith.
“There is a continual strive for excellence from everyone who works here and I just love the D.C. audiences. They are very smart and pay attention to nuance in such a deep way,” she says. “I feel like we can be riskier here. People like to think in the audience here, which I am very spoiled by.”
She expects that audience will walk away from The Heiress debating the different sides of the story, and expects rooting interest of different characters from different people.
“I feel like every director should be so lucky to work on this play; it’s such a treat,” Sueko says.