Daddy Dearest

Humorist Russell Baker once wrote that he wished he could travel through time whenever he slogs through a Henry James novel -- that way he could determine if the book offered any plot development that would make it worth finishing. Having waded through several of James's 112 short stories and a few of the twenty novels he wrote in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, I wholeheartedly agree with Baker and wish only to add my personal thanks for the invention of the remote control, a mini time machine that allows me to fast-forward through equally tedious film adaptions of James's works, including Daisy Miller and The Bostonians. James's studies of manners and class in America's then-emerging society always strike me as unconnected to the present day; consequently I'm not sorry that his twelve long-forgotten plays continue to be overlooked for modern revivals.

But while his plays may be ignored, his 1880 novel Washington Square serves as the basis for Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress, a stage drama that enthralls and challenges audiences a half-century after its 1947 premiere. The Heiress ran for nearly a year on Broadway before it was made into a film in 1949, winning Oscars for best screenplay and best actress (Olivia de Havilland); more recently it copped four Tony Awards for a 1995 Lincoln Center Theater revival. Closer to home, the Caldwell Theatre Company's taut, near-perfect current production of The Heiress concentrates on the script's timeless mystery of disguised intentions and family politics, effectively updating James's period piece while leaving intact its mid-Nineteenth Century setting.

The play's title refers to Catherine Sloper (Amy Prosser), a plain, painfully shy young woman who rarely ventures out into New York City society, choosing instead to stay by the hearth in the affluent Washington Square home she shares with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Miller Lide). No fireside can warm Austin's heart, however, as he coldly blames an unsuspecting Catherine for his wife's death in childbirth and bitterly resents her for not growing into a mirror image of her beautiful mother. Catherine's desolate existence ends with the arrival of dashing Morris Townsend (Ian Reed), who has recently returned home from his grand tour of Europe with little money but a wealth of charm. Convinced that his daughter's sweetheart is a rotter, Austin threatens to disinherit her if she marries Morris, who suddenly becomes a reluctant suitor upon learning that news. Left to confront Morris's true motives and her father's real feelings toward her, Catherine finds an inner strength that enables her to stand on her own -- a transformation that becomes the young heiress's final legacy.

A representative James heroine who mirrors her time, Catherine is impressed and seduced by European manners before discarding them in a defiant showing of American independence. In his program notes, director Michael Hall discusses the novelist's sociopolitical themes as reflected in The Heiress, reading Dr. Sloper's reaction to Townsend as an example of Calvinist America's distrust of decadent Old World ideas. Although the script could support such a stilted approach, Hall wisely restricts that interpretation to the program, opting instead to explore on-stage the shifting alliances among the characters. By emphasizing Morris's ambiguity rather than the character's machinations, Hall deliciously implies that Morris's intentions might be honorable, giving Reed leeway to charm the audience as well as the Sloper household. One moment the polite Victorian gentleman, the next an ardent suitor whispering flowery sentimental endearments, Reed's Morris is a gigolo worth his price. Of even greater value is Prosser's compelling performance. She plays the drama's early scenes with downcast eyes, signaling Catherine's insecurities; then when the young woman's hopes rise, the actress lifts her face to light up the Sloper home with the giddy excitement of first love. Later she invests Catherine with a steely demeanor that casts a pall over the play's final moments. Her Catherine evolves from handkerchief-twisting wallflower into forceful woman.

Joy Johnson warmly portrays Catherine's Aunt Lavinia, who falls hook, line, and sinker for Morris's romantic come-ons; Lavinia offers Morris the doctor's brandy and best cigars, and even goes so far as to help him in his pursuit of Catherine. Finnerty Steeves is impressive in a brief appearance as Mrs. Montgomery, Morris's poor but honest sister who overcomes her awe at the Slopers' fine home to retain her integrity, agonizingly questioning her brother's true motives. Other members of the supporting cast turn in solid performances to create a convincing Greek chorus that includes Catherine's Aunt Elizabeth (Barbara Bradshaw), Elizabeth's daughter Marian (Amy London), Marian's husband Arthur (Terrell Hardcastle), and Irish maid Maria (Andrea O'Connell). The production's one glaring flaw is Lide's incomplete portrayal of Dr. Sloper; although he supplies Austin's seen-it-all pragmatism, he lacks the rock-hard emotional brutality necessary to intimidate a natural intelligence and will as strong as Catherine's.

The cast's believability, combined with Hall's accent on the play's emotional tug of war, keeps the drama relevant, while the handsome production values provide the appropriate historical perspective. Designer Tim Bennett's suggested downstairs entry hall and prominent front parlor of formally positioned Chippendale tables and side chairs hark back to a time when living rooms were arranged to accommodate conversation and not big-screen TVs. Likewise, Thomas Salzman's sensitive lighting reminds us that days used to be measured from morning's sunlight to evening's dull glow of gas lamps, and Penny Koleos Williams's hoop-skirt costumes suggest that more than society's strictures kept women from moving freely.

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