Take your pick among the buzzwords of the therapeutic culture, and chances are you'll find them in Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress:codependence, motherless daughters, low self-esteem, tough love, control. What gives this play its distinctive power, however, is that it was written in 1947, long before self-improvement turned into a multibillion-dollar industry. And the source material is older still: Henry James' 1881 novel Washington Square.
Set in 1850, The Heiress still feels relevant and timely. It's a good play based on a good book that, like all good art, mines the universally human. Sure, there's a lot of dialogue that seems hopelessly dated (the word "gay" is actually used to describe something other than a person's sexuality), and several female characters are little more than projections of 19th-century chauvinism. But beneath the old-fashioned phrases and people is a vital, dark meditation on love—whether its origin is in the springs of romance and mystery or in humanity's insatiable thirst for control.
Of course, without a good production, whatever contemporary relevance might be found in this play would be lost, obscured by its superficial histrionics and melodrama. Director Mario Lescot gets to the complex psychology beneath the surface in this Theatre District production. On the way, Lescot saves us from a play that trips itself up on weak-kneed sentimentality and helps to reveal the brilliance of Henry James, even if he is a stuffy read.
Catherine Sloper (Lorianne Hill) is a dreadfully shy young woman raised by her widowed father, Dr. Austin Sloper (David Rousseve). The good doctor detests his daughter because she lacks the social graces and conversational skills of his late wife. But he's still Her Father, and he'll be damned if he's going to allow any young suitor with dollar signs flashing in his eyes to run off with his property—that is, his daughter. Just such a suitor seems to appear in the person of Morris Townsend (Christian Holiday), a nice enough fellow with no skills, no job prospects and no money but a prodigious appetite for the nicer things in life, like good cigars, good houses and women who stand to inherit lots of money when their fathers die. Morris appears to fall for Catherine—or at least for her impending inheritance ($10,000 from her dead mother; $20,000 more when her father kicks). Catherine falls for Morris, seeing in him the first and perhaps the last chance she'll have to gain freedom from her domineering father. There's just one problem, of course: Dr. Sloper threatens to disown Catherine if she marries Morris. Talk about heightened dramatic stakes.
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The character of Catherine contains one of the headiest character arcs in all of theater. She begins the play as shy and helpless as Laura in The Glass Menagerie; by play's end, she's transformed into an Ibsen heroine, combining the free will of Nora with the icy cruelty of Hedda Gabler. Hill captures both extremes; we care and root for Catherine even though we know she's hopelessly outmatched by the two men battling over her life.
Karen Mangano is a standout as Catherine's aunt, creating a character that is simultaneously the most likable and romantic onstage as well as the most myopic—a fact that makes her the play's most potentially dangerous figure. Less effective are the male pillars, both of whom seem plagued by gloom. That could work for Dr. Sloper, a man lost in the past and embittered by the present. But Sloper seems so despondent so early that you never get the idea he actually cares for his daughter. Holiday's Morris is similarly afflicted. Ostensibly a dashing young man who charms Catherine—and, just as important, her aunt—this Morris is almost charmless. He looks the part and has his moments, but he's too sullen.
Catherine's realization that she truly is her father's child gives the end an awesome punch. But the blow could be more powerful if, at some point, we felt that leaving home was ever really an option.
The Heiress at the Theatre District, 2930 Bristol St. (behind the Lab anti-mall), Costa Mesa, (714) 435-4043. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Aug. 14. $15-$20.