Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Sueko's measured direction makes clear every laugh line and every gasp-inducing moment of cruelty as Catherine Sloper (Laura C. Harris) realizes who she is and what she is capable of.
Catherine is the daughter of Dr. Austin Sloper (James Whelan), living in a fine house on New York City's Washington Square in the 1850s with her father and her widowed aunt, Lavinia Penniman (the peerless Nancy Robinette). She has a sizable inheritance from her mother, who died giving birth to her, and will receive more when her father dies.
While Catherine can be comfortable and even funny with her aunt, she shrinks into herself around her father, who has always found her a disappointment compared to the wife he lost. She enjoys embroidery and charity work; he berates her for her shyness and awkwardness in social situations.
Things begin to change when Catherine's cousin Marian Almond (Lorene Chesley) brings her fiancé Arthur Townsend (Nathan Whitmer) to the house, accompanied by Arthur's cousin Morris (Jonathan David Martin). Morris is notably charming though penniless and works to draw Catherine out of her shell. Soon he proposes marriage to Catherine, who is dazzled. Dr. Sloper, convinced that Morris is a fortune hunter, finds ways to show his disapproval as Lavinia giddily encourages the romance behind the scenes.
Harris portrays Catherine's growth not only in heart and mind, but seemingly in physical stature as well, thanks to Ivania Stack's costumes. She makes her first appearance in an overpowering, high-necked cherry red dress that appears to be dragging her down as she struggles against it. As she becomes more comfortable, so do her clothes.
Robinette, one of Washington's most honored actresses, continues to be a treasure of the Washington stage. Lavinia seems silly and driven by moods, but that's a façade; she understands the realities of love and money. Martin is amusing and poised as Morris tries to defend himself, while Whelan plays Dr. Sloper less in anger than as an exasperated man who can't understand why things don't happen the way he thinks they should.
Scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki Macadams has dressed, or perhaps overdressed, the in-the-round stage of the Fichandler with the elegant furniture and rugs of the family's drawing room and front parlor; Sherrice Mojgani's lighting design is more understated in keeping with the era of gaslight and candles.