It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a husband; it is also true that she will be targeted by wastrels and bounty hunters, and that she will have an overprotective father to protect said fortune from wastrels and bounty hunters. This central conceit of Arena Stage’s production of The Heiress, in a nicely wrapped package of class and gender conflicts, makes for a splendid evening’s entertainment.
Entertainment was probably furthest from Henry James’ mind in 1880, when he wrote Washington Square, the novel that Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted for the stage in 1947 and retitled The Heiress. James, a master of dense three-page meditations on the human soul, treated Washington Square with contempt because the novel was too accessible and popular. Given the highly engaging nature of this production, James is probably rolling in his grave right now.
The story is a potboiler. Catherine Sloper (Laura C. Harris), the titular heroine and upper-crust New Yorker, is heir to a substantial $30,000 a year. Her demanding, graceless father, Austin Sloper (James Whalen), criticizes his daughter’s plain looks, her lack of charm, and her paucity of wit, not understanding that he might be the cause of these deficits as he rubs her spirit into the ground, robs her of all confidence, and keeps comparing her to the memory of her dead and perfect mother. Given this baggage, it is no surprise that Catherine wilts in the presence of her father. When Morris Townsend (Jonathan David Martin), a poor spendthrift with no visible means of supporting himself, shows up wooing, Catherine falls for the charming man with a laser-sharp focus on her. Austin flares up in suspicion, surmising that Morris may be more interested in Catherine’s money than in her. The conflict between father, daughter, and suitor prompts the characters and audience members to investigate the meaning of love and attraction. Does it matter if Morris is attracted to both Catherine and to her money if he still loves her and makes her happy?
As Catherine, Harris acutely conveys her innocence, anger, and frustration at her circumscribed role in her house, trying to find a voice and assert her personality in the face of ruthless and relentless parental criticism. At the same time Martin is very convincing as a charming, worldly, and well traveled Morris, who has expensive taste, and who knows how to spend but not earn money. The dynamic between Harris and Martin, and the fast clip of their courtship, is convincing in its speed, as is their later interaction in the face of obstacles.
Whalen has an excellent turn as a father so fixed in his idealization of the perfect woman, and so protective of his daughter, that he fails to see her as a person. Austin loves his daughter but in such a controlling, patriarchal way that their relationship is acidic. These performances, the excellent pacing of the play, and the exploration of patriarchal control, love, and class, are credit to the excellent direction of Seema Sueko, who has dragged strong performances from not only the three main actors, but also from Nancy Robinette as Lavinia, Austin’s widowed sister and conspiring confidant to both Catherine and Morris, who wants her niece to settle down and find a partner for life even if there is a risk of her not marrying for ‘true love.’
The production is complemented by the gorgeous, rich costuming by Ivania Stack. As always, Arena’s Fichlander Stage is the best venue in the city to stage drawing room plays, and Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams takes full advantage of this to create a wonderful set.
Watch this well paced, well acted play and inquisition on the capacity to love with your partner. Then have a deep, engaged, and happy discussion about the nature of your love, the size of your trust fund or, depending on where you are in life, your Venmo account and student loan debt.
To March 10 at 1101 6th Street SW. $41–$95. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.