NEW YORK—Watching the very gripping Broadway revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 work “The Heiress,” one cannot help seeing the fatalistic resignation most of the characters carry in this story.
Based on a novel by Henry James, the play mixes family dysfunction with a debilitating cynicism.
Catherine Sloper (Jessica Chastain) lives in a Washington Square town house in 1850 New York City with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathairn). She is a terribly shy, plain-looking girl who would rather stay home embroidering instead of going out to dances or other social functions.
Also currently living with the Slopers is the Doctor’s widowed sister Lavinia (Judith Ivey).
Catherine’s relationship with her father is somewhat strained. He often treats her in a condescending manner, having little faith in his daughter’s ability to make her own way in the world.
Catherine’s only advantage, as he sees it, is her somewhat considerable inheritance, which also makes her a potential target for fortune hunters.
This danger becomes more than a possibility when Catherine meets Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens), a handsome but poor man, who quickly falls in love with the future heiress.
The Doctor, who has doubts about Morris’s character, threatens to disinherit his daughter if the two wed. While Catherine does not care about a loss of income, Morris sees things quite differently and goes to great lengths to bridge the gap between father and daughter.
The question soon becomes not only if Morris is just after Catherine’s money, but whether his ultimate purpose actually matters. Given Catherine’s limited attributes, as her father sees it and her Aunt Lavinia acknowledges, Morris may be her only chance for marriage.
It is this bleak attitude that drives the play. We clearly see the haves and have-nots in society and the extent to which the latter will go to get what they want, as well as the attitude by the former to simply accept these situations.
Chastain paints a compelling and complex portrayal of Catherine, taking the character from an awkward young woman to one who has her illusions shattered more than once. In the end she becomes just as empty as many of those around her.
We clearly see the haves and have-nots in society and the extent to which the latter will go to get what they want, as well as the attitude by the former to simply accept these situations.
But there is one ray of hope. She notes toward the end of the play, “I can do anything,” a comment indicating that she may finally have freed herself from the limits others have placed on her.
Stevens does an excellent job as Morris, a charmer and probable cad. Yet over the course of the play, he begins to develop an obvious attraction toward Catherine, much of it coming from lonely desperation. He needs the security she offers and perhaps also realizes her beauty within.
It’s a testament to Stevens’s acting skill and Moisés Kaufman’s direction that the character of Morris is so believable during his final scenes.
Strathairn turns in a masterful performance as the Doctor. A seemingly pleasant individual, he wanders through life with a perpetual cloud over his head, always comparing Catherine to the idolized memory of his dead wife.
Ivey is good as Lavinia, a widow with a good heart and a weakness for romantic situations. Yet she is grounded enough to call out her brother regarding his attitude toward his daughter and also not above urging Catherine to accept a marriage for the wrong reasons. She sees such an arrangement as Catherine’s best option for finding wedded bliss.
Elsewhere, Molly Camp is refreshing as Catherine’s cousin Marian, one of the few genuinely happy people in the play. Her joy and naked enthusiasm is a marked contrast to the numerous unsatisfied people around her.
Caitlin O’Connell does well as another sister of the Doctor, and Virginia Kull is fine as the Sloper’s maid.
Also in the cast are Kieran Campion, Dee Nelson, and Ben Livingston.
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Closes: Feb. 10
Kaufman’s direction is quite strong, building upon the story and allowing the characters to slowly develop until they are all fully formed individuals. The show does have a museum piece feel at times, especially in the beginning, but long before the middle of the first act, any dust that has accumulated has long since blown away.
Derek McLane’s set of the Sloper’s front parlor is exquisite; nicely done in dark colors with an impressive paneling effect.
Costumes by Albert Wolsky are nice to look at, the somber colors being a stark contrast to the white gown Catherine dons in the final scene.
A powerful tale about the dangers of reaping what one sows and of ultimately buying into everyone else’s belief in your abilities, this production of “The Heiress” sparkles with intensity. It echoes with the envious pain of those less fortunate and the sadness of those who are not as blessed as they might believe.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.
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