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In a day when more women’s voices are being heard around the world, “The Heiress,” onstage at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage through March 10, is particularly timely and relevant.
Based on Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square,” the play is about an awkward and shy woman trying to find her voice. Ably directed by Seema Sueko, the play, with its richly drawn characters and stellar acting, will keep audiences thoroughly engaged.
The plot is based on a handsome, but poor, man who gets engaged to a wealthy heiress described as “dull,” “plain,” “shy” and “mediocre.” But does he really love her, or is he just after her large fortune?
In the play’s program notes, Artistic Director Molly Smith states, “At its core, this is the story of a woman struggling with defining herself through others—a father, a husband.” Yet, she notes that women are individuals “and our thoughts, needs, desires are our own. It can be a challenge to feel empowered.”
As the almost paralyzing shy heiress, Catherine Sloper, actress Laura C. Harris is superbly on-spot and fragile, a delicate blossom whose fluttery nervousness is almost unbearable to witness. While Catherine is very expressive in the privacy of her room and even engaging when talking with her aunt Lavinia (a delightful Nancy Robinette), she becomes almost a shadow of herself in the presence of her disapproving father, Dr. Austin Sloper.
James Whalen plays the doctor and is brilliantly complex as a man who obviously wants to protect his daughter but, on the other hand, is embarrassed and disappointed in her lack of social grace. When we learn that his beautiful and accomplished wife died giving birth to Catherine, we see even more clearly why the doctor feels cheated and embittered.
Jonathan David Martin plays Morris Townsend, the elegant but poor bachelor, who sweeps the bright, but insecure Catherine off of her feet. Martin is another study in complexity as he quickly espouses sincere devotion, and even passion, for Catherine despite the fact that they only recently met. When we learn that he lives with his widowed sister and her five children, and that he quickly spent a small inheritance selfishly on himself, more doubt is cast on Morris’ character.
It is Harris, however, who the audience is fixated on, as she seemingly goes from cowering in front of her father to a giddy schoolgirl as she revels in Morris’ professed words of love. When her father protests the match, particularly because he cannot believe that a man would want his “dullard” daughter, you can almost feel the audience collectively hold its breath.
The supporting cast in the play are arresting and engaging, with Robinette particularly humorous as Catherine’s meddling aunt. She is blind to what may be Morris’ dark side because she, basically, is a romantic at heart. Morris’ sister, Mrs. Montgomery, is played beautifully by Lise Bruneau. When the doctor asks her openly about her brother’s character, she gives nothing away that would portray him in a negative light. With his inheritance, Morris treated himself to a tour of Europe, never giving anything to help her and her children. Yet, Bruneau never gives a hint that would allude to the fact that her brother may be a money hungry loafer.
Rounding out the cast is Kimberly Schraf as the housekeeper, Maria, and Lorene Chesley, Janet Hayatshahi and Nathan Whitmer all play relatives who sympathize with Catherine’s plight.
Arena Stage chose an all-female creative team to help mount this dynamic production, and Ivania Stack’s period costumes are gorgeous, while Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ set wonderfully captures the furnishings of that time.
The play’s dramatic ending, with a betrayed Catherine stepping into her full authenticity, will make all who see it gain a new perspective on how women can rise to their full potential when they embrace their true feminine power.
Catherine begins to roar, and all women are the better for it.