Monday, November 12, 2012

The Heiress (Walter Kerr Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This is a solid revival of Ruth & Augusta Goetz’s durable crowd-pleaser based on Henry James’ “Washington Square.”

Handsomely designed by Derek McLane, the production has a fine sense of period, that spell only occasionally broken by the odd, anachronistic line reading of Jessica Chastain as Catherine Sloper, the plain, awkward daughter of an upstanding doctor (David Strathairn) in 1850 New York. But for the most part, she’s quite affecting, offering a well drawn performance, rising impressively to her character’s big moments.

Strathairn plays his part far less stern and forbidding than I recall past interpreters, making his emotional detachment and sometime cruelty all the more fascinating. Dan Stevens, the “Downton Abbey” heartthrob, is strong as the suitor Morris Townsend who may or may not be a fortune hunter, though as directed by Moisés Kaufman, there seems little doubt on that point fairly early on. Stevens' American accent is pretty flawless, and there’s not a trace of the “Downton” Matthew Crawley about him.

The supporting cast is strong down the line, most especially Dee Nelson as Morris’ sister, Molly Camp as his sister-in-law, and Virginia Kull as the devoted Sloper housekeeper. Judith Ivey is a special delight as Dr. Sloper’s giddy, romantic sister. (Think Laura Hope Crews’ Aunt Pittypat in “Gone with the Wind.”)

Kaufman paces the action persuasively. And technical credits, including Albert Wolsky’s attractive costumes, David Lander’s evocative lighting scheme, and the rest, are all first-rate.

Some dismiss the play as melodramatic hokum, even with its Jamesian literary origin, but I was impressed again at how well constructed the Goetz dramatization is, and genuinely thought-provoking. One leaves the theater contemplating the actions of the various characters. Let others deride the play as old-fashioned theater; I say give us more like it.

(Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200 or
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