Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 1, 2012
The Heiress by Ruth & Augustus Goetz. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Albert Wolsky. Lighting design by David Lander. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Original music by Peter Golub. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Jessica Chastain, David Strathairn, Dan Stevens, Molly Camp, Kieran Campion, Virginia Kull, Mairin Lee, Ben Livingston, Dee Nelson, Caitlin O’Connell, and Judith Ivey.
If The Heiress adheres to tried-and-true principles in its construction that are often brushed aside today, and if it’s based on Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square about upper-crust life in 1850 New York, there’s hardly a whiff of dust about what the Goetzes crafted. Contemporary types may momentarily scoff at its story of the young woman Catherine Sloper (Chastain), who falls in love with the potentially gold-digging Morris Townsend (Stevens) against the fervent desires of her rich but emotionally abusive father Austin (Strathairn). But once all the battle lines have been drawn, it’s tough not to become absorbed in the very human troubles the play so efficiently and effectively documents.
Foremost among these is the compelling relationship between Austin and Catherine: He’s apparently long resented her because her mother died in childbirth with her, and Catherine has not lived up to either her mother’s standard or her own promise. She’s had every advantage, not least of which are her bulging inheritances (one from her mother, currently in effect, and an even larger one from her father when he dies), and yet remains alone, aloof, and ungraceful in pretty much any way imaginable. There’s real tension in Catherine’s decision to stop squandering her gifts with the one man her father is unable to appreciate.
And, for that matter, there are the constant questions about Morris’s true motives that flood the first half. Is Morris, as he presents himself, more on the level than certain bits of circumstantial evidence may make it seem? Or are Austin’s hunches about him correct, even though they’re far from concrete? How one approaches this question affects Morris’s other key pairing, with Austin’s live-in sister, Lavinia (Ivey), who falls for his charms in a way no one else does — is her positivity something to be admired, or is she an easier mark than her niece because she doesn’t have anyone directly protecting her?
Derek McLane’s cozy-opulent home set, awash in deep velvety colors, and illuminated with gaslight-warm precision by David Lander, join Albert Wolsky’s luscious costumes in painting a complete picture of Victorian Manhattan. But it’s the performances that are the most persuasive. They all highlight the lithe, teasing interplay of class and consciousness, down to the tiniest roles. Virginia Kull, for example, makes the relatively bit part of the doting Irish maid a delightful presence; and Caitlin O’Connell and Molly Camp, as Austin’s other sister and her daughter, and Kieran Campion and Dee Nelson, as Morris’s cousin and sister, do every bit as well.
Ivey is wittily flighty as Lavinia, showing her as a woman who’s relatable and yet out of her element in a world more complicated than the one in which she grew up. Strathairn tends to reveal his hand too often, letting Austin display more focused severity than is ideal for a man who needs to keep us guessing, but his driving attitude does pay off in the end as we see what and who he withers into. Stevens is hands-down terrific as Morris, utterly beguiling and yet painstakingly detailed in demonstrating how this man carves out new channels in life for himself — you understand, exactly as you must, the tricks he uses (or appears to use) and why others believe them so readily.
There’s only one dissatisfying element here, although it’s sadly a significant one. Chastain, who was so memorable as the sympathetic Celia in the film of The Help, fails to achieve an equivalent fluidity or suppleness of character here. She nicely embodies Catherine’s tomboy tendencies early on, but doesn’t make enough pointed choices about where Catherine goes from there. She neither believably softens into the helpless romantic nor hardens into the jaded left-behind as later scenes require. She’s clearly the same woman throughout, which is not a plus for this particular role. Delivering many of her lines with such one-dimensionality her performance borders on the mechanical, Chastain never establishes or follows through with the kind of dangerous growth that befalls Catherine — and that reportedly characterized Cherry Jones’s career-making portrayal in the play’s last revival (in 1995).
Missing those extra layers of Catherine stops this production from achieving perfection. Even with a less-than-ideal Chastain at its heart, however, both it and the play land with considerable force. If you’re expecting much in the way of new ideas, you may not see this as a worthy investment. But when enough is right, even as something as old-hat — in so many ways — as The Heiress is still capable of paying hefty (and welcome) dramatic dividends.