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The Heiress

nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
November 8, 2012

The Heiress

David Strathairn and Jessica Chastain in a scene from The Heiress | Joan Marcus

I never expected to be laughing watching The Heiress, but Director Moisés Kaufman’s has brought out all of the humor, life, complexity, psychology and nuance in this classic 1947 drama.  Aided by a talented, genuine, ensemble and a gifted design team, Kaufman has created a beautiful, captivating production.

The year is 1850.  Widower Dr. Austin Sloper lives with his daughter, Catherine, in a palatial house in Washington Square.  The bubbly Lavinia Penniman, Catherine’s aunt, is presently staying for an extended visit.  This evening, they are also being joined by Catherine’s newly engaged cousin and her fiancée, as well as the charming Morris Townsend.  There’s only one problem – Catherine is exceedingly shy – to the point of being exceedingly socially awkward.  As her father, the doctor, is quick to point out, Catherine is dull and unattractive, bearing no resemble to her beautiful, charming deceased mother.  When Morris begins courting Catherine, the doctor immediately calls Morris’ motives into question – clearly the only reason this attractive, sociable young man could be interested in Catherine is the fact that she is an heiress.

What proceeds is an intensely riveting drama, delving into the psychology of all of the characters, first and foremost Catherine.  All her life, Catherine has been told what she is not – she is not graceful, not beautiful, not interesting – in short, she is not her mother.  She spends her days volunteering for the hospital and with needlepoint.  Then, suddenly, her world is exploded open by the love, or alleged love, of Morris and she has the chance, for the first time, to define for herself who she is.  Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play is one of female empowerment, but also a look into why people act as they do.  As hurtful as some of the characters’ actions may be, they are always deeply justified.

Moisés Kaufman has artfully avoided melodrama and painted a complex, delicately shaded play devoid of villains and heroes but instead filled with complicated, subtle characters.  Great care and attention is given to the historical accuracy of the play – from the inflection and posture of the actors to Derek McLane’s breathtakingly luxurious parlor set to Albert Wolsky’s beautifully detailed costumes.

Stanislavsky said that when playing a bad or evil character, the actor must focus on what is likeable in them and vice-versa, and this cast does so admirably.  David Strathairn gives a remarkable performance as Dr. Austin Sloper, making it impossible to dislike this broken-hearted man.  Dan Stevens equally brings out the best in Morris.  Jessica Chastain’s Catherine is immensely likeable and you cannot help but wince with a shared embarrassment with her when she is so awkward in the company of others.  Chastain’s character arc is clear and logical and we are her ally throughout.  Judith Ivey is an absolute comic joy as the gossipy Aunt Lavinia and Dee Nelson gives an exceedingly simple yet beautiful performance as Morris’ sister.  Virginia Kull gives a solid, radiant performance as the ever-present, ever-working, maid Maria.

There is a beautiful delicacy to this production of The Heiress.  It is a wonderfully well-written play, performed with nuance and honesty and I highly recommend it!