My friend Matthew said it best after a torturous first act: “Creaky, isn’t it?” The play The Heiress is as rusty as the Tin Man, and that’s not just because it takes place (allegedly) in 1850. The more I think about what went wrong and what went reasonably well in this production of The Heiress, the more it seems I must take the director Moisés Kaufman to task.
By the end of the second act we were admiring of the play’s structure, in which the daughter becomes her father. It unfortunately takes a long time for this production to get there. The play (as well as the Oscar-winning screenplay based on it back in 1949, and a Burt Lancaster film I’m fond of, Trapeze) was written by the husband and wife playwriting team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz, and based on the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James. Not a bad pedigree.
The scenic design by Derek McLane created a performance space that can be appreciated from the steeply raked mezzanine as well as the orchestra, and it’s gorgeous as well as functional. The tastefully appointed living room of the Washington Square townhouse was lush, and atmospherically lit by David Lander with a discreet sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Albert Wolsky’s costumes are period, and the actors wear them with grace and naturalness. In fact one of the problems of the production may be the naturalistic style in which it’s played, when it’s clearly a creaky old melodrama. Mr. Kaufman staged the play well, but his direction of his actors and the styles of the play were questionable.
In the first act, Jessica Chastain played Catherine Sloper, in an early scene with her Aunt Penniman (the stalwart Judith Ivey), as a shy but sweet and fairly normal young woman. For the rest of the first act, she played her as Temple Grandin. Her voice was more in line with her intentions in the second act, but I felt she has vocal work to do to return to the theatre — while not grating on film, her voice is unnatural onstage. On the other hand, Ms. Chastain’s physical choices made sense. She could show grace in a practiced if old-fashioned movement like a deep curtsy; she was appropriately less than graceful in her shyness and bouncing about, and later despair. But whenever she spoke, I wanted to just read the script and cut her out of it. Where Ms. Chastain’s Catherine ends up in the second act is fabulous, but where did that woman come from? Intellectually she came from the images of her held by the most important men in her life, her father and Morris Townsend. But I didn’t see that progression in her, I just know it because the play’s structure showed me.
David Strathairn, whom I will see do anything, struck me as more of the decade before World War I than the decade before the Civil War, and was a rather soft variation on Dr. Austin Sloper. He was well mannered while insensitive. His daughter has minimal social skills because he hasn’t many. He only knows how to be polite — his kindness is restricted to his medical practice.
Judith Ivey is (Aunt) Lavinia Penniman. Dr. Sloper’s widowed sister, married for many years to a Reverend, is an absurd romantic with a practical streak, and Ms. Ivey’s portrayal is an utter delight. It is she, rather than Catherine, that Mr. Townsend romances so very well, and her scenes with Morris are a pleasure — she knows what he’s doing but enjoys him too much to be concerned. After all, every man has some flaw. The audience would know neither Catherine nor Austin Sloper were it not for Lavinia’s incessant chatter that annoys them enough for them to show us their true colors.
My favorite performance is a tie between Ms. Ivey and Caitlin O’Connell, who played the doctor’s other sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Almond. We meet “Aunt” Liz at the same time as we meet her daughter — Catherine’s cousin — Marian Almond (played with a warm and lively manner by Molly Camp), who is engaged to marry Arthur Townsend (a dull fellow well played by Kieran Campion). Ms. O’Connell’s Liz is warm, clever, practical, yet still shares some of her giggly sister Lavinia’s everlasting hope.
The Almonds bring along Arthur’s cousin several times removed, Morris Townsend, just back from Europe where he learned to love fine things. The Sloper house is fine in itself and filled with beautiful things, consumable and not. This handsome young man was played by Dan Stevens, who sounded like good casting for the role. However, he had better chemistry with Ms. Ivey than with Ms. Chastain, so at no time could the audience feel this was a romance thwarted. We always knew Dr. Sloper was right about that fellow. While Mr. Stevens’ work on Downton Abbey lead us to believe he could handle old-fashioned, formal language, Morris Townsend’s words sounded stiff.
Virginia Kull did good work as Maria, the Slopers’ loyal maid, with true affection for the members of the household she serves. We didn’t see Ben Livingston, we just heard him as the voice of the coachman from across the square; yet we appreciated his fine work as we heard his despair when his needs were not met.
Dee Nelson brought hope onto the stage then left it behind as Morris’ widowed sister, Mrs. Montgomery. Her affection for her brother is not blind, and while she starts the scene with anticipation of a good match for him, she sees the bleaker future when she meets Catherine.
This scene in particular makes Dr. Sloper seem much crueler than Mr. Strathairn plays him. Clearly Mr. Strathairn sees Dr. Sloper as a man who cannot be less than honest, although he is unfailingly polite. What he sees as flaws in his daughter are the shields she has created to protect herself from his cold gaze.
The problems of this production are fourfold.
- The play creaks with stiff language despite a solid structure. Melodrama doesn’t play awfully well in this century, especially when more than half the cast are playing it naturalistically.
- Dr. Sloper was rather too soft.
- Ms. Chastain ‘s choices, while consistent, seemed to imply that Catherine Sloper’s personality issues were mental instead of emotional, so her transformation in the second act did not follow.
- There was no chemistry between Ms. Chastain’s Catherine Sloper and Mr. Stevens’ Morris Townsend. There can be no heartbreak — for Catherine alone, of course — without love.
This The Heiress had far more laughs and chuckles than I would have expected. I enjoyed several performances and recognized the quality of the play, but wondered what the production with Cherry Jones several years ago might have looked like.
~ Molly Matera, signing off and sighing in disappointment.