Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens in a scene from The Heiress
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Moisés Kaufman’s revival of The Heiress brings American film star Jessica Chastain and British television star Dan Stevens to Broadway for the first time. A lovely, elegant production of the admirably skillful 1947 adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz of Henry James’ early novel Washington Square, Kaufman’s staging is quite competent as far as it goes. However, it would be even better if the cast which includes noted veterans David Strathairn and Judith Ivey dug a little bit deeper into this social drama of the 1850’s with psychological overtones. Nevertheless, one can enjoy the production for its gracefulness in depicting an era when manners was all and dutiful daughters were subservient to their all-powerful fathers. And it does give theatergoers a chance to see the talented Chastain and Stevens in person at the outset of their already distinguished careers.
Aside from her tremendous recent acclaim in six major films released in 2011 culminating in an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Help, Chastain might seem to be strange casting for the role of Catherine Sloper, the title character. Catherine is said to be plain and dull and without any social graces, a description that certainly does not call to mind the film star. However, Chastain’s earlier Off Broadway roles (Lee in Richard Nelson’s Rodney’s Wife and Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello) demonstrate an interest in a variety of roles that stretch her talents. On the other hand, Stevens would seem to be perfect casting for Morris Townsend, Catherine’s handsome fortune-hunting suitor. After appearing in such British period television adaptations as Frankenstein, Dracula, Sense and Sensibility, and The Turn of the Screw, Stevens has become a beloved international star as Matthew Crawley in the Public Television hit series, Downton Abbey, the latest variation on Upstairs Downstairs.
Set in the front parlor of a Washington Square mansion in the days when that was one of New York’s most distinguished addresses, The Heiress tells the story of the widowed Dr. Austin Sloper and his plain and socially retiring daughter Catherine, a spinster in her twenties. Dr. Sloper has never forgiven her for being the cause of his wife’s death in childbirth. In addition, the late Mrs. Sloper was a paragon of beauty, wit and intelligence. Compared to her, Catherine has been a terrible disappointment to her lonely father. Although the disdainful Dr. Sloper has been the soul of kindness to his daughter, he has been emotionally frigid because of his perceived ill fortune in not having a suitable replacement for his wife, and Catherine is starved for affection.
When the charming Morris Townsend is introduced into the family by his cousin who is about to marry Dr. Sloper’s niece, Catherine falls hard for him when he makes it his business to captivate her. Never has she had a suitor, nor has she been fascinated by so attractive a candidate. Her Aunt Lavinia Penniman, a romantic and foolish woman who lives with them, is thrilled for her. However, Catherine is an heiress: she has inherited $10,000 a year from her mother, and on her father’s death will inherit another $20,000 a year. In modern terms this is an income of $750,000, still a fortune in 2012. Cynical and rational about such things as money, Dr. Sloper can not believe that Morris is interested in his daughter for any reason except her fortune. He is determined to show Morris up for what he is and keep Catherine from making a mistake that will haunt her for the rest of her life. However, Catherine’s emotions having finally come into play for the first time in her life, she is not ready to give in to her father this time around.
Judith Ivey, Dan Stevens, David Strathairn and Jessica Chastain in a scene
from Moisés Kaufman’s revival of The Heiress
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
The most difficult role in the play is that of Catherine who must grow up in the course of the evening by a series of gradations, both as she changes from a girl to a woman and then as she becomes an equal adversary to her father. Chastain is better at this in the second act than in the first where we see little of her growth into what will eventually become a mature adult woman who can stand on her own two feet. She is initially, however, excellent at showing the awkward, socially inept young woman who would rather be a wallflower and retiring at gatherings due to her lack of small talk. Stevens is instantly believable as the appealing young man who has set his cap for the awkward girl. However, he does not show much of what is underneath: the workings of his calculations. He ought to be more devious, more cunning, more conniving. After all, the play poses the question as to whether Morris’ motives are mercenary and we have to have enough evidence on which to decide. Stevens’ Morris is almost too nice, too innocuous to have mercenary motives.
Strathairn is excellent at establishing the gruff, unemotional, matter-of-fact scientist who has always just tolerated his daughter while giving her every material comfort. What is lacking is the nuance that would show us the conflicted sides to his personality: a man who put his passions in retirement when his wife died, and has been polite to his daughter without revealing his true disgust of her deficiencies. In a near comic role, Ivey is delightful as Aunt Lavinia, the giggly, dreamy widow who attempts to aid Morris in winning his prize, one more of her attempts to create a romantic environment about her.
Among the supporting cast, Dee Nelson as Morris’ older sister who knows him through and through but wants to see him succeed is the best in the cast at capturing subtleties of character in her one interview with Dr. Sloper. Caitlin O’Connell as Catherine’s Aunt Elizabeth is an impressive combination of social poise and rational thought, a strong contrast to her more light-weight sister Lavinia.
Kaufman’s direction is otherwise smooth and stylish, showing an aptitude for period drama, a far cry from his other Broadway credits which include the surreal and political Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, 33 Variations and I Am My Own Wife. The social milieu is also brilliantly depicted in the physical production. Chastain’s seven costume changes designed by Albert Wolsky show not only what the well-dressed woman wore in 1850 but how a plain girl would use the fashions of the day to either hide behind or to make herself feel less ordinary. Paul Huntley is responsible for the slightly frowzy brown wig that masks Chastain’s personal beauty. Derek McLane has designed the handsome, palatial interior of the Sloper mansion in deep red fabrics and rich dark brown woods, a masculine residence if ever there was one. The lighting by David Lander makes the woods glow and focuses attention as the encounters shift from one part of the set to another.
This fourth Broadway revival of The Heiress is excellent theater and Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens make a lovely couple. While Moisés Kaufman’s polished and elegant production lacks nuance and subtlety which would make it great, the cast might grow into it with further performances.
The Heiress (through February 10, 2013)
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit online http://www.theheiressonbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission