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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.

The Caldwell's outstanding production proves that the goal of Russell Baker's temporal musings is not out of reach: Time travel through James's world is possible, but it requires evocative design elements, clear direction, and a first-rate cast.

With more than 4000 performances on London's West End, Stephen Mallatratt's The Woman in Black stands behind only Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap as the longest-running dramatic play in the annals of English theater. Christie continued to popularize the classic English parlor mystery in her enduring classic, while Mallatratt found his inspiration in another beloved British genre: the stylish Victorian ghost story. Tapping into that heritage, New Theatre's consummately staged Florida premiere of The Woman in Black sets the pulse racing with a suspenseful brew of locked rooms, foggy marshes, scary mansions, and menacing specters.

In a slick setup, this turn-of-the-century horror story begins when Mr. Kipps (Peter Haig) engages the use of a theater and its resident actor (Wayne LeGette) to dramatize a traumatic incident from his past in hopes of freeing himself from its oppressive memory. Rehearsals for a planned performance before Kipps's family begin with the two men switching identities, resulting in the actor portraying a younger Kipps and the drama's instigator enacting all the story's other characters. Before you can scream, "For God's sake, get out!" the actor-as-Kipps heads for remote Eel Marsh manor to finalize the affairs of a recently deceased client of his law firm. Once there he's unnerved by ominous remarks from the villagers, and his dread heightens with the disturbing appearances of a pale young woman who materializes among the tombstones and along a rain-swept marsh. As the rehearsals continue, the real Kipps begins to free himself of his unearthly burden, unaware that, as in all good ghost stories, he has merely passed it on to another.

Setting the drama in a playhouse allows Mallatratt and director Joseph Adler to suggest a variety of locales and characters through sound effects, props, and a trunk full of theatrical tricks. You can almost hear the strains of music-hall ditties coming from Carlos Arditti's marvelously realized Victorian stage, which contains a fake proscenium, footlights, anchored rope riggings for the scenery, and other greasepaint paraphernalia. Pedro Remirez's lighting design and Tony Reimer's sound design add chilling atmosphere worthy of a Hitchcock film.

As for the cast, Haig's chameleonlike assumption of other people's accents and mannerisms makes you wonder if his Kipps isn't also playing a role in his dealings with the hired actor. LeGette's energy drives the production as he attacks the role of the actor/young Kipps with such earnest enthusiasm that you just know his experience will end badly. Maintaining a frozen visage, Carolyn Raming gives a memorable let-me-sleep-with-the-nightlight-on performance as Kipps's silent visitor.

Adler's direction strives for maximum goosebump potential, adroitly milking the play's dramatic foreshadowing and giving each plot development the punch it deserves, as when the actor-as-Kipps decides to sleep alone in Eel Marsh for the first time, or the breathtaking moment when the lights hit a locked door that slooooooooooooowly begins to open to reveal ... but that would be telling. I'll end this review with a Woman in Black-out, pausing only to add my strong recommendation that you grab a talisman and catch this spectral delight before it disappears.

The Heiress. Written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz; directed by Michael Hall; with Miller Lide, Amy Prosser, and Ian Reed. Through May 18. For information call 930-6400.

The Woman in Black. Written by Stephen Mallatratt; directed by Joseph Adler; with Peter Haig and Wayne LeGette. Through May 18. For information call 443-5909.


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