A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 6 - Summer 2013

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The Heiress
reviewed by Linda Camarasana

The Heiress, a 1947 play by  Ruth and Augustus Goetz, which was “suggested by” Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square, was performed at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway between October 2012 through February 9, 2013. This new production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, starred Jessica Chastain, David Strathairn, Dan Stevens, and stage veteran Judith Ivey as a coquettish Mrs. Penniman.

Set in the tony Washington Square of the 1850s, the basic plot is a familiar Jamesian one: Catherine Sloper (Chastain), the eponymous heiress and daughter of Dr. Austin Sloper (Strathairn), whose beloved and idealized wife died giving birth to their daughter, has been a disappointment to her father, something he frequently and painfully reminds her of. In the first act, Catherine is introduced to Morris Townsend (Stevens), a man of cultivated taste but little means. Townsend professes an interest in Catherine, or is he just after her money?

Each of the three main characters have positive and negative attributes: Is Townsend drawn to the plain girl because he sees the virtue within? Or is he seduced by the opulence of the Washington Square home and all its refineries, which she will one day inherit? Does Dr. Sloper heroically try to prevent a doomed betrothal, going as far as to take his daughter on a European trip, a stress which hastens his own demise? Or does he oppose the match solely because he can’t believe a man could truly desire his daughter?

As played, the two male leads seem to offer little room for Jamesian ambiguity. Stevens’ look as he casts his eyes over the opulent drawing room, even before the climactic scene in which he fails to meet his assignation, leaves little doubt about his true desire. Dr. Sloper utters cruel words to his daughter, but given the transparency of Townsend’s intent, he has more sympathy than perhaps he deserves. As played by Strathairn, the doctor comes across as cold, but more than competent, and his curtly behavior towards his daughter seems more a result of a man trapped in a limiting gender role and unduly idolizing his deceased wife than a man who means to harm his only child. It simply doesn’t occur to him that his daughter might blossom more under his tutelage if he dealt with her more gently. The blindness of his own effect on his daughter is part of the tragedy of the play. In spite of his wish that his daughter grow up to be more clever than good, his failure to love Catherine as she is makes her both less secure in his presence and vulnerable to the professed love of another man. 

They main role, however, is of course that of “the heiress.” As written (and played in the 1949 film by Olivia de Havilland), Catherine should be presented as socially inept, but not clueless; inelegant, but perceptive in her own way. Her pathos derives from her inability to break out of her own shyness. She falls for Townsend, not merely because she is desperate to escape her father, but because she comes to believe that Morris really is able to see her true value. Her first scene with her aunt reveals her wit and insightfulness, quickly extinguished once her father appears. Such potential complexity is unfortunately lost on this production. Chastain literally stumbles down stairs she has presumably used her entire life, and her bumbling entrance, which should produce a wince, instead evokes laughter from the audience.

The set by Derek McLane is stunning, with wallpaper and furnishings carefully chosen to indicate wealth and refinement, but appropriately understated to avoid gaudy ostentation. Had the direction and range of the actors also managed such restraint this production might have come closer to capturing the layers of pathos in the story of a young woman of means but little grace.