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"The Heiress", Based on Henry James' "Washington Square", at the Walter Kerr Theatre
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"The Heiress", Based on Henry James' "Washington Square", at the Walter Kerr Theatre

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The Heiress
(The Heiress Website)
By Ruth & Augustus Goetz

Based on the Henry James Novella
Washington Square

Judith Ivey, Jessica Chastain, David Straithairn, Dan Stevens

Molly Camp, Kieran Campion, Virginia Kull
Mairin Lee, Ben Livingston, Dee Nelson, Caitlin O’Connell

Directed by Moisés Kaufman

At the
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: David Lander
Costume Design: Albert Wolsky
Sound Design: Leon Rothenberg
Original Music: Peter Golub
Wigs and Hair Design by Paul Huntley
Production Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting
Technical Supervision: Peter Fulbright
Advertising & Marketing: Serino/Coyne
Company Manager: Penelope Daulton
Executive Producer: 101 Productions, Ltd.
Press: Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
November 8, 2012

I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to live on Washington Square in its glorious heydays in the 1800’s, à la Henry James. Those magnificent brownstones today only hint at carriages, horses, messengers on foot, starchy hired help, wide-hooped dresses, and magnificent soirées. As the curtain rose on Derek McLane’s deep, dark, mahogany set, with maroon embroidered wallpaper and a flaming chandelier, the audience was immediately transported and appreciative. One immediately thirsts for impetuous romance and family drama, given this milieu, and our thirst was quenched.

Ruth and Augustus Goetz, in 1947, adapted James’ 1880 novella, Washington Square, into a two-act play, with seven separate scenes, spanning a few years, 1850 and beyond. Catherine Sloper (Jessica Chastain), the heiress in the title, was left motherless, due to her own birth, and she lives as a very eligible, but shy recluse with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (David Straithairn), their Irish maid, Maria (Virginia Kull), and at this time also with her aunt Lavinia Penniman (Judith Ivey), who’s always in black. Yet, when one of these characters wears black, the costume (all by Albert Wolsky) remains elegant and fetching. Dr. Sloper and his deceased wife had apparently inherited and accumulated a great deal of their own wealth, with the doctor running a hospital for children and tending to all the newly pregnant mothers and sick families.

When Catherine’s relatives and friends arrive for an evening in the drawing room, they bring Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens) along, with his refreshing, but devious demeanor. He’s full of bravado, humor, and style, and Catherine is forced to stiffly curtsy and converse. She’s unpolished in the world of social connection and has no desire for it, either. However, on urging, she is drawn to the obviously obsessed Morris. When Dr. Sloper shows concern on the financial and career strength of the dapper Morris, his prescience is illuminated, like the overhead candles that shimmer on high. Morris’ intent is for fine liquor, a fine roof over his head, and lifelong security. Moreover, to all who know him, his sense of reliability and responsibility have been tossed to the rafters. Catherine is acutely lonely and unprepared, as she agrees soon after to take Morris’ hand in marriage, despite her father’s threat at disinheritance. Aunt Lavinia, a widowed woman alone, works each opportunity to move Catherine toward Morris, as she, herself, is now bewitched by his favors.

Mr. Straithairn brings self-sorrow and a sense of doom to Dr. Sloper, especially when he had planned a six-month Parisian trip to relive each moment he’d had with his wife, so long ago. Instead, in an effort to remove Catherine from the clutches of Morris’ manipulation, he takes Catherine along instead. It’s during this period that Morris and Lavinia empty the brandy and plot the elopement. Ms. Ivey is filled with exuberance and mirth, although Lavinia’s senseless persistence to lead Catherine to a dubious life with a loser enhanced the action with dread. As Lavinia, Ms. Ivey often stole the stage. One of Mr. Straithairn’s most memorable moments occurred as he painfully climbed the stairs, with a weak and broken heart, as Catherine showed him as little mercy and love as he had shown her, all her life. He was a broken man, and his posture, gait, and spoken word were quintessentially crumbling.

Ms. Chastain has a porcelain appearance, as if her face and limbs would shatter on resistance. But, in Act II she morphs from a young woman in the power of her environment to a more mature woman, who’s established her own power. Mr. Stevens seems perfectly cast as the aimless, self-serving, predatory Morris, with his hair, clothing, and gestures so desperately forlorn in the later scenes. Dee Nelson, as Morris’ widowed sister, Mrs. Montgomery, layered her performance as dutiful but weary caretaker. Minor characters were Kieran Campion as Morris’ co-conspiring brother, Arthur, Molly Camp as Catherine’s cousin Marian Almond, and Caitlin O’Connell as Marian’s mother and Catherine’s aunt, Elizabeth Almond. Ben Livingston was the Coachman.

Moisés Kaufman directs for mystery and magnetism. Eyes were gripped to the stage; the audience seemed to hang on each word, for clues to Catherine’s evolving intentions. Dialogue was so critical to each moment, as well as small details, like ruby and diamond studs given to Morris during a major shift in the plot. Something so small, we could just see a small box, was yet so significant and portending. David Lander’s lighting was shadowy, occasionally highlighting a character or object. Peter Golub’s music expanded the drama unobtrusively, while Leon Rothenberg’s sound was always clear and measured. Kudos to Henry James, whose original novella was not credited on the Playbill.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at