Honesty is not always the best policy. That is one of the many things we learn from “The Heiress”, the meaty 1947 play, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on “Washington Square” by Henry James in 1880. It went on to win many awards for Olivia de Havilland, who starred in the 1949 film with the utterly romantic Montgomery Clift. The 1995 revival brought well-deserved honors to Cherry Jones.
Now, with a cast directed by Moises Kaufman and costumed lavishly by Albert Wolsky, Jessica Chastain, in a strange red nasty wig and white chalky makeup, takes on the role of Catherine Sloper, the shy, plain daughter of a wealthy, cultured doctor. His wife, whom he adored, died in childbirth, and it seems he has never forgiven Catherine. She cannot live up to his expectations, and he lets her know it. Played here by David Straithairn, who adopts a conversational manner underscored by a cruel manner, Dr. Austin Sloper is a difficult man, who is revered by his patients and his loyal maid, Maria, a charming Virginia Kull.
Sloper's sister, newly-widowed Aunt Lavinia Penniman, a part Judith Ivey decorates with wiggles and giggles, has come to stay with them in their handsome home. Designed by Derek McLane in deep wine tones, heavy drapery, oil lamps and Corinthian columns, lit by David Lander, the house is another character in this play. Into this fraught atmosphere comes Morris Townsend, a charming ne'er do well, who confesses he does not have a dime, and falls immediately for Catherine. Dan Stevens gives a gleefully emotional performance as a suitor with or without a cause. Catherine loves him for his attentions; Aunt Lavinia loves his company on those long dark nights when there is nothing to do. This savvy lady knows that nothing is perfect and tries to counsel her brother, but he will have none of it. He is sure Morris wants only Catherine's inheritance and questions Morris' sister, the widow, Mrs. Montgomery, about it. Played with a fine quietness by Dee Nelson, she is loyal to her brother, yet admits he has never shared any of his inheritance to help with her five children.
Several pivotal scenes anchor “The Heiress”: The first takes place when Catherine finally stands up to her father and does not care that he will disinherit her; the second and most painful is the night she waits for Morris to elope with her and is crushed when he does not appear; the third, when two years later she pretends to accept him and then bolts the door, while Morris calls out in anguish. In the beginning, Chastain presents a confused portrait of this young woman, but as the action develops, she grows stronger, as does her character. In the end the production is immensely interesting.
Oh, the honesty part? Well, it is Lavinia who understands the problem. “You told him that you were disinherited,” she asks Catherine... “before you were married? Oh dear!!!”
“The Heiress” at the Walter Kerr Theater.