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The Heiress
Visually Stunning, Less Than Epic Melodrama

Palo Alto Players
Review by Jeanie K. Smith

Also see Jeanie's review of Smell of the Kill and Richard's review of Silent Sky


Miriam Ani
The Heiress, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, opened on Broadway in 1947 and ran to great acclaim for over a year. Based on Henry James' 1880 novel "Washington Square," it has spawned several award-winning revivals since then, including one in 2012, hailed as "the unforgettable drama that still touches audiences." Palo Alto Players has mounted a timely and richly appointed production in the Lucie Stern theatre; unfortunately, the acting fails to mine the complexity of the text, giving us sturm und drang instead of subtlety and depth.

Catherine Sloper (Miriam Ani) is our heroine: shy, self-effacing, and dominated by her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Louis Schilling). Their posh residence, in 1850 New York City, shows sophisticated status and taste, and is home to the Slopers, maid Maria (Nikita Sethi) and a cook, and Catherine's widowed Aunt Lavinia (Christine Macomber) who has been enlisted to provide companionship to Catherine. Catherine's mother died when she was born, a fact that the Doctor continues to blame her for; now, she and Aunt Lavinia run the household, but we quickly see that the Doctor holds sway, issuing dictates and keeping his daughter well under his thumb.

Enter Morris Townsend (Mark Haptonstall), cousin to a niece's husband, handsome and mannered but untenable as a suitor, with no money or prospects to his name. He soon declares his love to Catherine, and she, being unschooled in the world, accepts and returns his attentions with fervor, scarcely believing her good fortune in attracting such a man. Once Dr. Sloper gets wind of the relationship, he does everything he can to destroy it, convinced that Townsend is interested only in Catherine's considerable income and inheritance. The strategies he employs only deepen Catherine's resolve to marry Morris, until one horrible night that changes everything, forever.

It doesn't take genius to see where the story is heading, but the ending still surprises many, and reveals the extent to which Catherine has been affected by those she innocently loved. The ambiguity of her final actions leave room for debate as to her motives and her fate, and make for good post-show discussion.

The Players production is a sumptuous visual feast. Kuo-Hao Lo's magnificent set has remarkable depth and soaring height, and superb attention to period detail. Mary Cravens' costume design is fabulous, especially with all the different dresses she gets to create for Catherine. Properties by Pat Tyler, sound design by Jeff Grafton, and lighting by Edward Hunter all contribute to deliver a beautiful spectacle for the show.

Macomber is a proper and believable Lavinia, wishing the best for Catherine but succumbing to Townsend's charms. Sethi nicely inhabits the loyal and humble maid, and Shareen Merriam is quite credible as Catherine's other aunt, Elizabeth. The women in Catherine's universe ably demonstrate the social constraints of 19th century womanhood, registering their opinions but recognizing the limits of their power to change anything.

Ani looks the role of Catherine to a tee, but her simpering smile and extreme humility in the first act border on mental defect, making it difficult to buy her transformation later. Schilling's melodramatic delivery turns the Doctor into a one-dimensional villain, so there's no arc for the character, no chance for us to believe he might be caring but misguided. Haptonstall fails to generate any heat between Townsend and Catherine, making his mercenary interests far too obvious, his passion too remote.

A drama of epic proportions that still has resonance, The Heiress here gets a mixed outing, with gorgeous production values but uneven acting. Still, if you've never seen the play, you may enjoy finding out why it endures, and debating what Catherine does after the play's end.

The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, presented by Palo Alto Players at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, through February 2. Tickets $23-45, available at 650-329-0891 or at www.paplayers.org.


Photo: Joyce Goldschmid


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Jeanie K. Smith



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