A stroll up a staircase has never looked better. And Jessica Chastain’s ascent up the onstage staircase in the final scene of The Heiress, currently in performances at the Walter Kerr Theater, is an inspiring moment in a play that is nothing but thought-provoking and timely – unsettlingly so.
The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry James’ novella Washington Square by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, has long been a favorite vehicle for actresses. The film adaptation starred Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson and theatergoers still reminisce about Cherry Jones’ performance in the 1995 revival. This production, directed by Moisés Kaufman and starring film star Chastain, is not as shattering as some claim the 1995 revival was but is still an intelligent and well-acted evening at the theater.
Chastain plays Catherine Sloper, the socially awkward and soon-to-be wealthy daughter if the widowed Dr. Austin Sloper (an excellent and underplayed David Strathairn). Remote and aloof, Austin resents his daughter and has never forgiven her for the death of her mother in childbirth. Strathairn downplays the role, emphasizing his character’s clinical and chilly disposition. At times, however, he appears cruel to Catherine, and I found myself gasping when he said of his daughter’s birth resulting in his wife’s death, “I was entitled to think that someday she’d make it up to me.” To a 21st century audience, the idea of a daughter being viewed as an investment or property was shocking to hear. But despite his character’s shortcomings, Strathairn is a natural onstage and plays Austin with a regal ease, and whenever he was offstage the stage seemed to be lacking.
As Catherine, Chastain gives a performance of blunt comedy in the first act, emphasizing the awkward humor of Catherine’s social ignorance. Donning a frizzy brown wig and a emphasizing her slumped posture, Chastain attempts to appear unattractive onstage and delivers many of Catherine’s less enlightened comments staring at the floor or blankly straight ahead in the audience. While this comedy is welcome, the painful undertones and consequences of Catherine’s disconnect from her peers is never fully recognized, which then downplays her wonder at the whirlwind courtship of Morris Townsend.
Morris, the young man who comes courting Catherine (and her inheritance), is played by Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens in a pleasing but not fully recognized performance. Handsome and undeniably charming, Stevens is believable as the man who sweeps Catherine off of her feet only to be thwarted by her protective father. But he never registers as truly mercenary; rather, he merely seems a wayward young man unable to face responsibility. When he returns to Catherine in the second act, older and possibly wiser, his remorse and pain does appear authentic and he inspires some – but not much – sympathy.
Catherine’s aunt and Morris’ confidante Lavinia Penniman is played by the excellent Judith Ivey, who is clearly having a fine time as a woman so infatuated with her niece’s suitor one suspects she would like to run away with him herself. Ivey possess impeccable comedic timing and steals almost every scene she is in with her witty double-entendres. But she also offers insight into the more melancholy undertones of The Heiress, foreshadowing Catherine’s possible future as a woman alone.
Dr. Sloper’s other sister is played by Caitlin O’Connell in a steady performance, and Morris’ sister is given a heartfelt and sincere perspective from Dee Nelson. The Sloper family maid is played by Virginia Kull in a spot-on performance
Staged on Derek McLane’s opulent drawing-room set, with the characters donned in Albert Wolsky’s luxurious costumes, The Heiress is truly a treat to watch. David Lander’s lighting further enhances the mood of well-appointed discussion and latent passions lurking beneath the drawn corset laces.
While The Heiress was first performed in 1947, and much has changed since its original incarnation. I found myself scoffing and rolling my eyes at many lines (a few of them being Catherine being described as her family as “so gentle and good” and them earnestly stating, “Catherine’s happiness depends on marriage”). While some of those statements could have been spoken in today’s culture (much to my disappointment and disgust), what struck me the most about The Heiress was the depth of Catherine’s agony after her father informs her she is neither attractive nor interesting and Morris is undoubtedly after her money, not her love. Chastain ably depicts the brittle self defense Catherine builds out of her pain while still offering glimpses of the aching vulnerability that remains underneath. And while Catherine’s final decision may disappoint some (ardent Downton Abbey fans, to be sure), Chastain’s performance leaves little doubt that Catherine made the right choice, and her ascent to her bedroom is a triumphant one.