Ambiguous Love Reigns in “The Heiress”

The 1947 play The Heiress is currently enjoying its second Broadway revival. Adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from Henry James’ Washington Square, the story feels like Jane Austen in New York City. With direction by playwright Moises Kaufman, this revival is a humorous and ambiguous examination of love and trust.

theheiressposterYoung Catherine Sloper (Jessica Chastain) is the titular heiress, expecting to receive a sizable fortune upon her father’s death. He, Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathairn), concerns himself with finding a suitable young man for Catherine to marry. However, his anger with his daughter for causing his wife to die in childbirth has led him to put too much stress on her. She’s a timid, naive and “deeply unattractive” girl, bringing out even more disdain in Austin. So when young and attractive Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens) arrives to court his daughter, he is extremely suspicious.

As Morris woos Catherine, our distrust for his intentions grows. The audience must infer and deduce whether he truly loves Catherine or if he is a calculating young man. Stevens certainly does enough to make Morris ambiguous. The contrast between his dweeb-like American accent in Catherine’s presence and his more calculating tone when around others such as comedic relief Lavinia Penniman (a thoroughly amusing Judith Ivey), Catherine’s aunt, is enough to make one suspicious.

img-the-heiress_164707558146.jpg_article_singleimageIt’s not until the second act that everyone’s motives become increasingly clear. This is when the role of Catherine grows into something substantial. In the performance I saw, Chastain’s understudy, Mairin Lee, performed the role of Catherine. While adequately portraying naiveté, Lee was clearly aping Chastain’s style of acting, making it both easier to imagine her, Chastain, in the role instead and harder to enjoy her, Lee’s, own performance. This is definitely a role that an actress can sink her teeth into, and Chastain, I can only assume, does a wonderful job with it. (Hopefully this is her year, with both an Oscar and a Tony in her future!)

Before the last of this season’s shows begin opening, be sure to check out this play. It’s funny and engaging enough to make you forget that it runs almost 3 hours in length. And the performances strike a good balance between subtlety and camp, keeping you engaged in guessing about the characters’ motives and what kind of action they will take in those final scenes without becoming darkly serious.

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