Jessica Chastain is The Heiress. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Last month I saw the Broadway production of The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’ adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square. Set in 1850 New York, the play takes place in the front parlour of the fashionable home of Dr. Austin Sloper and his daughter Catherine. The well-respected Dr. Sloper is disappointed with his plain daughter who while shy and socially awkward, displays intelligence and a sense of humour when alone with her Aunt Lavinia who has come to stay with the Slopers since the passing of her husband. Into the house one evening comes Morris Townsend, a young man of looks and charm but no fortune. Dr. Sloper immediately suspects that his intentions toward Catherine are dubious but she believes Morris to be honourable and starts to think that perhaps, finally, she has found love. After an extended trip to Europe with her father in an attempt to get her to forget her suitor, Catherine returns only to discover the truth about Morris’ feelings for her.
The play was enjoyable to watch starting with Derek McLane’s set filled with loads of mahogany and dark reds and crystal and Albert Wolsky’s period-perfect outfits for the cast. Yet at times it felt like eating a sugary meringue—light and lovely but without a lot of weight to it.
Part of this had to do with the casting. David Strathairn’s Dr. Sloper came across as stern but not as tyrannical as he perhaps should be for the story. His treatment of his only child whom he has never forgiven for not growing up to be more like her mother who died shortly after childbirth was hard to watch but maybe not hard enough.
Dan Stevens did a serviceable job as the shallow Morris but seemed to lack the cunning that one would expect from a character of that ilk. He did look the part though and to his credit it only took a few minutes to forget that you weren’t watching Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey.
Judith Ivey as Aunt Lavinia stole the show whenever she was on stage. At times bringing to mind Aunt Pittypat from Gone With the Wind, her over exuberant outbursts and general silliness served, for most of the play, to mask a sharp mind. Of all the people who crossed the threshold of the Sloper household, she was the one who seemed to be most aware of what was going on.
And then there was Jessica Chastain as Catherine. The young woman who is funny one moment and a stumbling mess the next, living in fear of her father yet constantly seeking his approval, is a complex woman who by the play’s end transforms into a hardened spinster. While Chastain looked the part, her portrayal felt disjointed. Part of this was due to her manner of speech; a drawn out “yes” in answer to a question for example was distracting and just odd. It’s unfortunate because I know Chastain is a fine actress, perhaps one of the best in Hollywood at the moment. Maybe her next time on Broadway, which I am sure there will be a next time, she will have a role that she can make more her own.
The Heiress has closed but you can see some short videos about the production here.