The Heiress, based on Washington Square, the 1880 novel by Henry James, tells the story of Catherine Sloper, the shy and sheltered daughter of a prominent New York doctor in 1850. Caught between the demands of her emotionally abusive father and the attentions of a passionate young suitor of dubious intentions, Catherine struggles to find her own place in the world.
Much has been made of the fact that Jessica Chastain is too beautiful to play Catherine Sloper. That misses the point of The Heiress – the problem isn’t that Catherine is plain, but that she has been made to feel inferior and socially inept, a very queer theme indeed. Paul Huntley’s wig and hair design, together with Ashley Ryan’s savvy make-up design, tell this story very clearly, as Catherine goes from unflattering but period-correct hairstyles to looser but more confident and genuinely “handsomer” looks.
Chastain herself plays Catherine’s journey smartly with solid attention to detail, even if she doesn’t quite succeed in finding the depths of Catherine’s transformation into a formidable and intelligent women with her own powerful will. In any event, Chastain does locate Catherine’s interior dignity from beginning to end, never cheating her character’s feelings for the sake of a comic moment.
David Strathairn wisely plays Catherine’s father Dr. Sloper as deeply damaged goods rather than the embodiment of evil. The not-so-good doctor, in Strathairn’s approach, does love his daughter, but totally lacks the tools to know how to express that feeling. This effectively points up the society-wide failings of mid-19th Century America, rather than isolating one aberrant man – a far closer approach to the insights of Henry James than previous interpretations.
Downtown Abbey heartthrob Dan Stevens is adequate as Morris Townsend, Catherine’s suitor, handsome and milksopy enough to reflect both the admiration and doubt that comes Morris’s way. As so often happens, Judith Ivey is probably the best thing in the production as the giddy and romantic Aunt Lavinia – we are with her sentimental thoughts until the very last moments of the play. A solid production of a period piece that has aged very well.
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