When “The Heiress”, the drama adapted and written by Ruth and August Goetz made its Broadway debut at the Biltmore Theatre in 1947, America was a different society. Based on the nineteenth century novel “Washington Square” by Henry James, the selection of “The Heiress”, as the penultimate production of the Pasadena Playhouse 201l-2012 Season is somewhat puzzling. Under the very talented artistic direction of Sheldon Epps, the playhouse has been successful in becoming a major Regional Theatre over the last ten years. Epps very rarely strays far from delivering the type of productions his audience say they want to see. “The Heiress”, however, is an old chestnut of a selection that comes out of the blue and from another era.
The story set in 1850, revolves around and recounts the conflict between a drab, achingly shy, obedient daughter and her brilliant, unfeeling, domineering father.
Dr. Austin Sloper (Richard Chamberlain), a rich, and highly successful physician lives in the wealthy Washington Square section of New York with his daughter Catherine (a tall Heather Tom). Catherine is a sweet-natured young woman who is a great disappointment to her martinet-like father, being physically plain, and he believes dull in terms of personality and intellect. She is a perfect candidate to become an old maid. His sister Lavinia (Julia Duffy), a meddlesome and gossipy woman is the only other member of the household, except for Maria (Elizabeth Tobias), the maid.
Into Catherine’s sheltered life comes Morris Townsend (a mid-height) Steve Combs, whom she has met at a party. A powerful attraction draws them together with Catherine, all too quickly, announcing that she and Morris are in love and are engaged. Dr. Sloper quickly realizes the powerful attraction that has drawn the handsome and charming Morris to his Catherine is her fortune. He thwarts all attempts by Catherine and Morris to convince him that her love for Morris (from her viewpoint) and his intentions toward Catherine (from his viewpoint) are true and honorable. Ultimately, Sloper just states that Morris is merely a fortune hunter and not a suitable marriage prospect for her.
The young pair, however, have their allies and friends: Gigi Bermingham as Elizabeth Almond, Anneliese Van der Pol as Marion Almond, Jill Van Velzer as Mrs. Montgomery, and Chris Reinacher as Arthur Townsend, all lending solid support from behind the scenes but, in the long run, to no avail. The heavy lifting in this production must come from its three principals.
“The Heiress”, staged and glacially directed by Damaso Rodriguez, which fails to engage is an evening at the theatre that teeters between boring and dull, and is an opportunity missed when it comes to Chamberlain’s much anticipated appearance as Dr. Sloper. He still has the voice and the looks, but the performance is a study in slow-motion acting. However, it’s not all Chamberlain’s fault. Even Henry James never really cared for the novel he authored. The story is pedestrian and predictable. It took the 1949 movie starring Olivia de Havilland, and the great Sir Ralph Richardson to make the story compelling and successful to the public; winning an Academy Award for de Havilland, as Best Actress.
The beautiful set design by John Iacovelli allows for plenty of space for the actors to work. Perhaps, a canted, offset stage design would have allowed for a more interesting visual focus for the audience instead of the head-on view? Also, I so wanted to see at least a piece of that door that Morris keeps pounding on, just before Catherine ascends the staircase. Ah, well.
Looking on the bright side, Brian Gale’s lighting design (no pun intended) and Leah Piehl’s costumes are mood inducing and a visual delight, respectively.
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“The Heiress” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Photos: Jim Cox.