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“The Heiress,” Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 drama, is prime for retelling.
Based on the novella “Washington Square,” by the brilliant and deeply closeted Henry James, it’s the story of seriously socially awkward Catherine Sloper, a rich young woman without a suitor in sight. Until there is.
Now at Arena Stage in a straightforward production helmed by Seema Sueko, Catherine’s saga unfolds lucidly, alternating between humor and sadness, dashed hopes and empowerment. It’s 1850, and Catherine (Laura C. Harris) resides with her hyper-critical father, Dr. Austin Sloper (James Whalen doing some of his best work), in a stately townhouse on Washington Square in lower Manhattan. Catherine’s recently widowed Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Nancy Robinette) has joined them on an extended visit. But don’t let the widow weeds fool you, Lavinia is happy to raise a glass and eager to assist in changing the circumstances of her niece’s nonexistent love life.
When alone with Lavinia, Catherine is almost relaxed. She amuses her aunt with an anecdote from her day. But when her father — or guests, heaven forbid — are on the scene, it’s another thing altogether. Harris’ Catherine, tiny and beetle-browed, transforms into a bundle of nerves mutely hopping in and out of the expansive rooms, avoiding contact as best she can.
Exacting Dr. Sloper admires a clever woman. Unlike her accomplished and beautiful mother who died in childbirth, Catherine is unquestionably not clever. When pressed to count Catherine’s qualities, her father notes that she embroiders neatly. And yet despite the immense fortune she is destined to inherit, Catherine remains overlooked. But when a young Morris Townsend (a terrifically ingratiating Jonathan David Martin), genteel but impoverished, comes calling, he can’t possibly be interested in for any reason other than her money, or can he? It depends whom you ask. And herein lies the crux of the drama.
Catherine’s new love gives her increased confidence. After a brief and abrupt courtship, Catherine is convinced she has found the one. Morris’ claim of love at first sight makes sense to her. Though her aunt is aware of Catherine’s shortcomings, she sees no reason for Catherine to be deprived of romance even if her wooer were a fortune hunter. It seems Lavinia has developed something of a crush on fawning Townsend.
In an attempt at distraction, Dr. Sloper takes Catherine abroad for six months of European travel. She returns slightly more cultured, but still marriage minded as evidenced by her haul: scores of gowns and a trousseau fit for a minor princess. But here, her plans go awry.
Mikiko Suzuki Macadams transforms Arena’s Fichlander Stage into the Sloper’s well-appointed drawing room and front parlor with exits to a below stairs kitchen, and a long, long staircase leading to upper floors of unseen bedrooms and Catherine’s sitting room. Despite the largeness of the in-the-round space, the actors maintain intimacy when required.
Others entering the house include Morris’ principled sister Mrs. Montgomery, a small but important part played by Lise Bruneau, and Catherine’s friendly Aunt Elizabeth (Janet Hayatshahi) and pretty cousin Marian played by Lorene Chesley. Kimberly Schraf plays Maria, the efficient Irish maid.
Today, while crossing Washington Square where a row of those grand 19th century houses still stands, you can imagine Catherine (as played by Olivia de Havilland in the 1949 film version, in my case) safely entrenched behind tall closed doors. But the passing reverie is ended by the cries of children, noisy buskers or maybe the hushed calls from a smalltime drug peddler.
Still, Catherine’s story endures.