It’s been 15 years since I’ve seen a production of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress, and I’ve always wondered why it isn’t produced more often. Though it was written in 1947 and based on Henry James’ 1880 novel Washington Square, it has never seemed antiquated or out-of-date, hoop skirts and all. The core of the play is pure—an awkwardly shy woman of advancing age (mid-30s) pines for the love and acceptance of her detached father and finds new hope and new heartache in a dashing young suitor of questionable motives. In the end, she emerges victorious over them both—iron-clad and colder to a world that’s required the sacrifice of her empathy and kindness in order for her to survive. It’s a brutal thing, emoting a realism that many modern playwrights would do well to note.
South Coast Repertory’s new staging, under the direction of Martin Benson, is a welcome introduction to audiences unfamiliar with the play’s previous runs, and yet it seems to fall just short of the emotional resonance that should come as the story unfolds. It’s difficult when an entire play hinges on the performance of one character to make it work, and here, it is Catherine Sloper, the heiress herself, who must channel a plain exterior with fire building underneath. Catherine is not, in fact, too awkward for most tastes—she just doesn’t fit in nor have a natural ability to read or adhere to the societal rules of her time. She is scrutinized for not being up to snuff, and since we, the audience, find most of the traditions before us to be shallow, we’re always on her side. In an interesting (and not entirely successful) choice, this Catherine (Kirsten Potter) comes off not as a woman struggling to adapt to an unkind world, but more like a woman truly unpossessed of a center who occasionally bursts out into a garish laugh or monotoned response. Catherine isn’t just repressed; she’s kind of weird.
Matters aren’t helped much by her overly critical father, Dr. Sloper, played by Tony Amendola, whose choices are also somewhat unusual—for Dr. Sloper to work effectively and to engender our contempt, his politeness toward his daughter should appear as tests of her mettle tinged with condescension. To Dr. Sloper, Catherine will never be her mother, a woman he idealized and lauded and who died giving birth to Catherine. She is also an utter disappointment to him socially, which is the only criterion upon which he judges her. Amendola seems to want us to like Dr. Sloper, however, which only muddles any clear view of their relationship, and his frequent turn-outs to the audience during regular conversations shatter the emotional web we’re supposed to be entangled in.
Fortunately, Michael Newcomer, as suspect suitor Morris Townsend, rides in for the rescue. An idle fellow without any clear ambition other than to possess sparkly accessories, Townsend is both the sincerely charming savior and the tool of Catherine’s ultimate heartache and resurrection. Newcomer plays it the way it’s written—emotionally charitable to the point where we question whether he wants Catherine for her inheritance, or if he actually has compassion for her. In truth, we know money has to play a part in his courtship, so the only real dilemma is whether we think he’s kind enough (and she needy enough) that we approve of his deception.
This is the line taken by Catherine’s kindly aunt Lavinia Penniman (played by Lynn Milgrim). As the adoring widow whom we’re never sure buys Morris’ line, Milgrim has the perfect tone and timing for the kooky old woman, making her appearances a pleasure. An additional nod on this point to Amelia White as Catherine’s other aunt, Elizabeth Almond, whose rare appearances light up the stage with professionalism and depth.
The Heiress at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5500; www.scr.org. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 16. $18-$58.