Playwrights Augustus and Ruth Goetz adapted Henry James’ novel Washington Square into The Heiress, which focuses on socially awkward, plain Catherine Sloper (Effie Johnson) and her pursuit by Morris Townsend (Jeffries Thaiss), who professes love for her but may simply be interested in her substantial inheritance. The time is 1850, when women had few options aside from marriage.
Catherine is not stupid, but her autocratic father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ted van Griethuysen), constantly criticizes her and never makes her feel worthy of love. (Catherine’s beautiful mother died giving birth to her, and her father has felt resentful and cheated ever since.) The other member of the household is Dr. Sloper’s widowed sister, Lavinia Penniman (Halo Wines), a rather dithery woman with an idealized view of romance.
Morris Townsend enters the Slopers’ lives when his cousin Arthur (Jesse Mays) becomes engaged to Catherine’s cousin Marian Almond (Beth Hylton). Although his attentions seem naturally drawn to the fine furnishings of the Sloper family’s front parlor and Catherine’s jewels, Morris shows an ardor toward the inexperienced woman that manages to convince her of his sincerity. Indeed, the audience is rooting for Catherine, because clearly her father would never believe any man to be interested in her for reasons other than her money.
Johnson conveys Catherine’s transformation in a clear but low-key manner, showing her growth from an overage girl unable to speak comfortably in front of other people to a “handsome” and self-possessed woman confident in her own judgment, and ultimately a figure as dominating, in her own way, as her father.
Van Griethuysen, for his part, manages to show that Dr. Sloper does have some warm feelings for his daughter. He simply believes he knows what is best for her, and lets his pride and arrogance, and his unreasonably high expectations, get in the way. Wines depicts a woman who knows, despite her seeming silliness, how to manipulate a situation, while Thaiss clearly comes across as a man who knows what he wants and is determined to get it. The one weakness in the cast is the erratic nature of the maid’s (Patricia Hurley) accent, which sounds Irish at one point and Scandinavian at another.
James Wolk’s sumptuous set and Nancy Schertler’s lighting design are perhaps overly lavish: the rear wall of the parlor is a scrim that becomes distractingly transparent at the beginning of each scene to reveal the view of Washington Square outside the house. Liz Covey’s costumes subtly convey the drama of the situation, as when Catherine finds herself upstaged by her own red dress.
Olney Theatre Center