Irving — A father, a daughter, a fortune, and a young man who says he’s in love. But does his heart beat faster for the girl, the money—or both? It’s a classic setup for melodrama. Happily, director Emily Scott Banks avoids any hint of moustache-twirling in her admirable revival of The Heiress at MainStage Irving-Las Colinas in the Irving Arts Center. Solid casting, sumptuous costumes and a fine period stage design catch our eyes and ears—but Banks’ evident determination to avoid “stock” characterizations infuses the production with a clear-eyed humanity that rewards attention.
She’s brought off a bit of a high-wire act, in fact. In less skilled hands, this 1940s stage adaptation of the Henry James short novel Washington Square by Ruth and Augustus Goetz (who also wrote the screenplay for the 1949 film) might give off more than a whiff of mothballs. Instead, while The Heiress maintains a 19th-century pace that gives us time to take in the details, there’s also steady sense of energy, and a feeling of the action being “right now” and not “long ago”—a good trick, especially considering that the plot plays out entirely within the walls of one New York City mansion in the 1850s.
If the story isn’t familiar, here are the bones: Wealthy and long-widowed Dr. Austin Sloper (Robert Michael James) lives with his awkward only daughter Catherine (Alexandra Lawrence) in a house overlooking elegant Washington Square. The young woman clearly is a disappointment to her father. Dr. Sloper mourns his vivacious wife and finds nothing in Catherine that reminds him of the clever, graceful woman who died at her birth. Sharing their home is Sloper’s sister, the romantic and meddlesome Lavinia Penniman (Allyn Carrell).
Catherine’s newly married cousin Marian (Kaycee Reininger) introduces her to handsome Morris Townsend (Jeff Wittekiend), a well-mannered but poor young man who shows immediate romantic interest. Dr. Sloper suspects Morris is a fortune hunter and sets out to prove it—but Morris pre-empts him at every turn, gaining Catherine’s promise to marry him and warning her that Dr. Sloper will tell her that he wants the money, not her.
It’s a two-man battle over a rich prize, and we’re left wondering if the painfully childlike Catherine will ever stop being the pawn. We doubt Morris’ passion—but is he a cold-hearted mercenary or something more pitiable: a desperate young man who’s convinced himself he could make Catherine happy and have the life he wants, full of beautiful clothes and well-aged brandy? Does Dr. Sloper, his disdain for Catherine barely concealed, want her to be happy—or is he more interested in the game of keeping all his possessions (money, house, Catherine) out of the hands of a man who hasn’t earned them?
What’s the truth of it all? It’s possible that The Heiress is a story that improves with age—one that ought to go on our literary bucket lists, to be seen at least once in later life. With plenty of years behind us, we’re likely to find ourselves even more astonished by the endless blurrings, complexities and intersections of human motivation—and even less sure what to believe completely.
Lawrence takes Catherine through a fascinatingly slo-mo transformation from reclusive girl to willful woman. She’s almost comic at first, and we aren’t sure what to make of her: head drawn down into her shoulders like a turtle in retreat; voice like an uncertain child, flat-toned and halting. In the first seen we view her in contrast to her just-married cousin, played sparklingly by Reininger. Marian’s life has begun, while Catherine waits…and waits.
Morris lands in her life like a rescuing archangel, and this unloved woman follows him with glowing eyes, sure that Morris will “make it all up to me.” With one arms-wide movement across the stage, Lawrence catches us up in Catherine’s joy—and we will share in her disappointments, too.
As Morris, Wittekiend deftly walks the line between charming and conniving, though (as Henry James probably intended) he seems more suspicious than swoony from the start. But his zero-to-sixty courtship style works whether we think he’s an ambitious boy or a charming sociopath. Morris wants what he wants, and he wants it now. He has an amusing partner in Carrell’s aunt Lavinia—like Austen’s Mrs. Bennett, she’s both silly and practical—who’s enchanted by Catherine’s romance and all too willing to plot and plan with Morris. There’s a counternote to Morris in the steady, serious character of his sister Mrs. Montgomery (Megan Noble Haratine in a fine, brief performance), who tries to defends her brother against Sloper’s accusations—but has her suspicions, too.
We’ve all known a Dr. Sloper: the well-regarded gent who’s a saint to the world and a beast at home. At the start, he’s amusing—a snarky humorist in a too-quiet house. James’ portrayal has a light, almost detached tone, and we enjoy this smart, satirical man, possibly as a contrast to the plodding Catherine. But as the jokes turn into jabs, all of them aimed at his daughter, we see him clearly: Sloper considers his daughter a “mediocre and defenseless creature”—and a bad trade for the wife he lost.
Sloper becomes ever more biting and hateful as Catherine opposes him—and he’s plainly shocked by her new willingness to speak truth. Even if he couldn’t love her himself, she tells him, “You should have let someone else try!” James and Wittekiend play off one another well: both their characters have more than a bit of megalomania, and their worst quarrel ends in a hissing undertone: “It is over; you have lost.” “Don’t be too sure of that.”
This is a good-looking show. Designer Sam Nance’s morning and evening light coming through a parlor window adds life to Kevin Brown’s thoughtfully furnished Victorian set. Rich Frohlich provides an evocative soundscape of carriage wheels, horses and clocks marking the hours. And Michael Robinson’s period costumes—velvets and tassels, crisp tartans and swishing silks—are a constant source of pleasure.
Reportedly, novelist Henry James based his story on something he heard from famed actress Fanny Kemble: makes you wonder who “the heiress” really was, how it all ended, and what great stories today’s Washington Square—full of skateboarders and improv groups and musicians playing for change—might have left to tell.