Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Heiress at the Walter Kerr Theatre

Ruth and Augustus Goetz' drama The Heiress based on the novel by Henry James receives a thoughtful revival under the sure direction of Moises Kaufman.   A tale in which the conflicts simmer to a slow boil can appear tedious and old-fashioned in lesser hands.   The revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre provides a satisfying evening of theater that can only come from good pacing and perfect casting.

Dr. Austin Sloper lives in an mansion in Washington Square in 1850's New York City with his only surviving child, the plain and awkward Catherine.   Catherine can never live up to the dazzling accomplished beauty that her mother was, and her father makes it clear that he believes that no one will ever wish to marry Catherine except to gain the immense fortune she will inherit.  At a social gathering Catherine meets Morris Townsend a charming young man and the two quickly fall in love and make plans to marry encouraged by Catherine's romance and intrigue-loving Aunt Lavinia.   Dr. Sloper makes it clear that he questions young Morris' intentions as Morris has already squandered a small inheritance.   Dr. Sloper reluctantly takes Catherine to Europe for six months to quash the romance.  Upon her return, Catherine makes plans to elope with Morris despite her father's decision to disinherit his daughter of 2/3rds of her income.   Whether Morris genuinely loves Catherine or is the fortune seeker her father claims leads to the climax of the tale and a life lesson Catherine never forgets.

The Heiress is a riveting tale.  The scene is perfectly set with the opulent scenic design of Derek McLane matched with the period costumes of Albert Wolsky.   The ensemble of ten actors is outstanding, led by the four well-known actors who portray the leads.   Judith Ivey is charming as the romantic Aunt Lavinia.  She conveys a genuine warmth for her socially inept niece.  Her defiance of Dr. Sloper in the hopes that despite Morris' motivations Catherine can achieve personal happiness provides needed comic relief from the drama.   As Morris Townsend, the suitor, Dan Stevens quickly gets the audience on his and Catherine's side.  It is only when the text dictates it that the unsavory aspects of Mr. Townsend surface.   It is a credit to Mr. Stevens that this character maintains some sympathy even as his motivations burble to the surface.

David Strathairn is appropriately stern and matter-of-fact when it comes to the life lessons he is forced to give his daughter Catherine.  At times cruel in his contempt for his disappointing daughter the audience still has some understanding of this unsympathetic man.  Jessica Chastain at first seems to adopt a few very artificial mannerisms in her depiction of Catherine's awkwardness.  However, her commitment to those mannerisms makes them a natural part of this sheltered young lady's persona.   Her growth as Catherine travels from shy girl who embraces her first chance at romantic happiness is delightful to watch.   When Catherine turns on the other characters as she harshly learns the lessons her father has drummed into her head leads to a commanding performance as Catherine transforms before our eyes into a confident woman who knows well what her life's sad destiny will be and fully embraces that destiny.

The Heiress is being performed at the Walter Kerr Theatre through February 10, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit or

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