Last night I headed into the city after a long day with the kids for drinks with a friend for a show, The Heiress on Broadway. This is a show based on the 1880 book by Henry James, Washington Square, a film I saw a decade ago starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. The story has remained etched in my mind all these years about a shy and sheltered daughter of a prominent New Yorker who falls in love with a man with no scruples or real interest in her beyond her wealth. I also remember vividly the film version with Olivia DeHavilland and Montgomery Clift, directed by William Wyler. I watched it in high school during a time when I watched every black and white film ever made.
I was also lucky to see a stage version of this show in 1995 when I first moved to NYC that starred Cherry Jones at the Cort Theater. It was a Lincoln Center production. Jones, who won a Tony Award, and became the Queen of Broadway after that, was amazing and left a long-lasting mark on my mind as the bizarrely shy Catherine. I have cherished all of my Cherry Jones experiences and long for her return to the NYC stage.
So, I wondered how the 2012 version of The Heiress would be and how I would compare it to my initial experiences with the story. The show stars Jessica Chastain (who I know mainly as a lead in The Help and The Tree of Life) as Catherine, David Strathairn (who I have loved for years for his performances in so many wonderful John Sayles films, The Days & Nights of Molly Dodd and countless roles) as her father, Judith Ivey as her nosy aunt and Dan Stevens as her unforgivable suitor.
It’s hard for me to remember how perfectly Jones played Catherine, so I’m not necessarily comparing the two actresses. Catherine is a socially awkward, young girl and we experience that immediately with Chastain’s portrayal as soon as she comes on stage. She has lived in the shadow of her dead mother for the last twenty years and knows that even her own father thinks she is “dull”. She is the recipient of a small fortune – 10K per year from her deceased mother – and an extra 20K upon her father’s death. When Prince Charming comes along in the form of Morris Townsend, a dashing, slick, young man with no work experience or guaranteed future, she overlooks all but the fact that he declares his love for her after three meetings in her home. Her father sees through him immediately and declares he will cut off her if she goes through with the marriage and what ensues is not pretty. The story is a sad commentary on how women were treated nearly 150 years ago.
Jessica Chastain is a classically trained actress. She studied at Julliard and I can see why the producers and casting agents cast her in this role. I wish I could say I adored her performance, but I found her slightly painful to watch during the first act. To showcase her character’s flaws, she made pained expressions and accentuated certain words harder than others for effect (The word “Yes” in particular). Once I discovered that even her father finds her socially inept, that helped me understand her effort to make Catherine so plain, withdrawn, naive and immature. As the play progressed and she regained power over her future and her plans, Chastain seemed to grow into the role. It also helped that her character spends six months in Paris after act 1 and learns to love clothing, make-up and hair. As her character brightens up, so does Chastain’s acting. I have to commend her for taking on such a revered, difficult role.
As mentioned, I have been loved David Strathairn for years and I found his performance to be impeccable. As a father who loves his daughter but has little respect for how she turned out, Dr. Sloper is restrained and aloof. When we find out that he blames his daughter for the death of his beloved wife in childbirth, it brings his character’s issues to light and Straithairn plays the role with dignity and gumption.
I admit that I was not a Downton Abbey fan before this show, but I am now watching it as I write this post and am starting on season 1 (on Netflix). Not because of Stevens but I am curious about the hoopla behind his fame. The theater was full of men who stood up and cheered him on at the end of the show. As Townsend, he is slick as he allures Catherine into falling in love with him in two weeks. It is never clear to us that he truly loves her as much as her wealth, but a part of me wanted to believe in him. Stevens is mysterious and excellent at keeping up false pretenses and he leaves little to go on in a moment of utter suspense. Will he or won’t he return?
Judith Ivey is always a superstar on stage and this role is no exception.
I have to mention the team behind the show – I thought the costumes and set were outstanding and the production quality is top notch: Derek McLane (sets), Albert Wolsky (costumes), David Lander (lighting), Leon Rothenberg (sound design) and original music by Peter Golub. I’m a huge fan of Moisés Kaufman, who directed this version, as well, author of The Laramie Project and 33 Variations and Director of many fabulous theater endeavors.
Do I recommend this show? YES. (with a Chastain-accentuated tone). See it to find out what I mean. I saw it with a girlfriend and it was a great night out for both of us. We were mesmerized by the staging, acting and classic story that still remains etched in my brain.
Pick up tickets at the Walter Kerr Theatre Box Office, 219 West 48th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue. For information about individual ticket sales, please call (212) 239-6200. If you reside outside of the NY metro area, call (800) 432-7250. Ticket information can be found here.
Disclosure: I paid for these tickets. There is nothing to disclose.