THE BLOG
11/05/2012 10:42 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2013

"The Heiress" Review: Love And Loathing In Washington Square

Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned, but there is no shortage of silent rage onstage at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre in Jessica Chastain's subtle and nuanced portrayal of the jilted rich girl in a fine revival of The Heiress.

A strong cast under Moises Kaufman's studied and well-paced direction brings a fresh vision and new life to Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 65-year-old stage dramatization of Henry James's novel Washington Square. Kaufman has restored the play to drawing room manners, where the bitterness and tension that pervade the Sloper household are covered with a veneer of gentility and politeness.

The play closely follows James's story of Catherine Sloper, the shy, awkward, and rather homely heiress of Dr. Austin Sloper, a wealthy physician and widower who bears a lifelong resentment toward the daughter his idolized wife died bearing, and her nascent love affair with a dashing interloper.

If Dr. Sloper hopes Catherine, under her widowed Aunt Lavinia's tutelage, will grow into the clever, witty, and talented woman her mother had been, he is constantly disappointed and takes few pains to hide it. So, when the handsome, attentive, and worldly-wise Morris Townsend begins to woo Catherine, who stands to inherit a small fortune, he is immediately suspicious.

Chastain's performance is low-key throughout, delicately creating a portrait of a naïve young woman shattered by betrayal. She makes the emotional transition from a giddy girl in love to an abandoned fiancée bent on retribution so seamless that the final outcome of Townsend's two-year, on-and-off courtship remains in doubt until the last scene, even for those who know how the story ends.

The estimable David Strathairn brilliantly re-invents the character of Dr. Sloper, foregoing the usual portrayal of a blatantly bullying and domineering father to one whose antipathy toward his daughter is one of passive aggressive civility. Rather than barking his criticisms of his daughter, as the role is usually played, Strathairn takes the tone of a longsuffering parent who despairs that his child will ever be fit for polite society.

Dan Stevens, no stranger to period drawing rooms from his role as Matthew Crawley in TV's Downton Abbey, is so convincingly charming and sincere in his avowals of love to Catherine it's difficult to believe he even knows the size of her inheritance. Chastain and Stevens are both making their Broadway debuts in The Heiress, and one hopes they make frequent return visits.

Judith Ivey delivers a star turn as Lavinia, Catherine's dowdy, widowed aunt who is foolishly fond of young Townsend, and who knows a thing or two about living one's declining years alone. One often forgets the wry humor in James's novels, but Ivey manages to get a laugh at every opportunity and her closing scene with Catherine is poignant.

The mood and tone of this revival of The Heiress is wonderfully enhanced by Derek McLane's well-appointed front parlor in the Slopers' Washington Square house, along with Albert Wolsky's mid-19th century costumes and David Landers' warm, gas-lit hues. It should also be noted that the transformation of Chastain, a movie star beauty, into a young woman James described as having a "dull, plain, and gentle countenance" must have been a makeup artist's challenge.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.