The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on the novel "Washington Square" by Henry James. Directed by Tom Detwiler.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jill Wanderman and Tracy Trimm; photo: Daniel Region
Jonathan Slocum and Nancy Cummings Hammell; photo: Daniel Region
"I may never see Washington Square again in the middle of the night."
Catherine Sloper is an awkward young woman who falls in love with Morris Townsend, a man with a questionable background. Her father, Dr. Sloper, is a hard man who controls his daughter as best he can with a stern demeanor and an overly careful regard for the future of the legacy he may leave her. Love enters the picture through Catherine. Lust and control are the manipulators that bring a potentially sweet romance to a bitter and remorseless end.
These are the basic factors that are brought to bear on the stage of the Ghent Playhouse in the Goetz's play, The Heiress, which first saw the light of day on Broadway in 1947. Basil Rathbone played Dr. Sloper, Wendy Hiller was Catherine and Peter Cookson was the handsome Morris. The play morphed, almost word for word, into the hit film with Olivia DeHavilland, Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift.
The tragedy Henry James observed and wrote about is the stuff of great drama and the company in Ghent has not stinted on a single element. The glorious set designed by Joe Iuviene and the uncomfortable period costumes supplied by Joanne Maurer serve as perfect frames for the characters. Bill Camp's lighting is both moody and representational, giving us daytime and nighttime scenes with equal clarity. Director Tom Detwiler has found the most perfect regional cast to portray the characters and infused them with period gesture and movement so that even the unnatural reactions of Catherine feel perfectly right and reasonable.
Catherine is played by Jill Wanderman, an actress new to this stage. Her early twitches and her macabre facial expressions alter into a subtle beauty as love overtakes her. She fulfills the promise of intense emotion at exactly the right moments and is thrilling in the final scene when her father's emotional legacy takes its place in her heart. Watching her pull off these transitions in the plays seven scenes is what good theater is all about.
Tracy Trimm, one of this company's busiest actors, gives us one of his all-time best performances. As Dr. Sloper he begins the evening with a dark humor and ends his role with a sickly inhumanity. The often charming Trimm takes on the darkest pall in this role and he does it with strength and a facility that is frightening.
As his rival, Morris Townsend, Jonathan Slocum pulls off the near-impossible task of overcoming the image of Montgomery Clift. He is more transparent in his pursuit of Catherine than Clift was in the film. He is more engaging, as well, when he makes love to his target. Slocum leaves us wondering if his pursuit is as strictly mercenary as his lines would have us believe.
Aunt Penniman, the fourth corner in the pentagram of Henry James societal spell is played by Nancy Cummings Hammell in a performance that is so correctly frivolous that what could have been comic relief turns into something else. The nineteenth century romantic is alive in her performance with its devotion to the belief in goodness. When she finds her ideals betrayed by those around her, her devastation leaves nothing to the imagination.
Kate Gulliver delivers handsomely as Dr. Slocum's other sister, Elizabeth. Less an atmosphere extra than a participating force, Gulliver's Elizabeth becomes a sympathetic ally rather than the usual background accomplice. As her daughter Nellie Rustick does a lovely job with her few moments on stage. Likewise Arielle Lant as the maid, Maria, gives us just what is called for and Hal Smyth as Rustick's swain does just fine.
Kathy Wohlfield, playing the uncomfortable role of Morris' sister, has a scene that could have easily gone over-the-top, but under the direction of Detwiler comes off as the most controlled performance of the evening. She underplays the emotional content in such a way as to bring us closer to the truth than any other moment in play provides.
You may gather from the above that I liked this performance. You would be correct in assuming such a thing, especially in an evening that runs three hours and eight minutes. Take a chance on a drama that brings you close to the greatness of fine literature, superb theater and a group of highly talented actors. It's worth the time it takes.
The Heiress plays at the Ghent Playhouse, on Route 66 in Ghent, NY weekends only through April 10. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-6264.