The Heiress – When Money Can’t Buy Happiness

The Heiress is a period play that remains timely. Henry James’ heroine Catherine Sloper struggles to find her voice and assert herself despite being belittled by her father and manipulated by a suitor. Catherine finds her footing and becomes empowered to deliver verbal bombshells and one crushing blow. 

Inspired by James’ 1880 novel, The Heiress premiered on Broadway in 1947, was adapted into a 1949 film starring Olivia de Havilland, and had four Broadway revivals. Arena Stage’s production, directed by Seema Sueko, stars Laura C. Harris as Catherine, James Whalen as Catherine’s father, Dr. Austin Sloper, Jonathan David Martin as Catherine’s suitor, Morris Townsend, and Nancy Robinette as Lavinia Penniman, Catherine’s widowed aunt living with the doctor. The Fichandler’s theater in the round is transformed into the drawing room and front parlor of a townhouse located in New York City’s Washington Square Park. 

Laura C. Harris and Jonathan David Martin

Dr. Sloper, a prominent physician, has never recovered from the loss of his wife, who died giving birth to Catherine. The doctor cannot hide his disappointment that his daughter is neither beautiful nor clever. Reflecting on his wife’s death, he tells Catherine’s aunt: “Only I know what I lost when she died and what I got in her place.” (That line and several other disparaging jabs at Catherine elicited gasps from the audience.)

It’s no surprise, then, that Catherine, starved for approval and love, hastily accepts a marriage proposal from Morris, a charming gadabout. Austin, however, surmises that Morris is after Catherine’s money. She will inherit annually $10,000 from her mother’s estate and $30,000 from her father’s. Catherine knows that Morris has run through his own inheritance, but she truly believes he loves her and will agree to the marriage even if she’s disinherited.

Jonathan David Martin and Nancy Robinette

Austin, hoping Catherine will change her mind, convinces her to accompany him to Paris where he plans to attend a medical meeting. While Catherine is gone, Morris frequently visits Lavinia, enjoying the doctor’s brandy and cigars and dreaming about being the man of the mansion. 

Catherine returns home and agrees to elope with Morris the next day to escape her father’s disapproval. Morris is ecstatic, but after learning that she will be disinherited, abandons her. Catherine is devastated. A few days later, the doctor tells his daughter that he is dying. If he expects sympathy, he has badly misread Catherine’s mood. “Don’t be kind to me father,” she tells him. “It doesn’t become you.”

After her father’s death, Catherine seems reborn. She begins wearing some of the fashions she bought in Paris and takes pleasure in her embroidery. Lavinia attempts to play matchmaker, inviting Morris to call on Catherine. When he arrives, she plays along, pretending that she will marry him. He’s elated and goes off to pack his things. But when he returns, she directs the maid, Maria (Kimberly Schraf), to “bolt the door.”

Catherine may have survived her father’s abuse, but she also is very much his daughter. “Yes, I can be very cruel,” Catherine tells Lavinia. “I have been taught by masters.” Harris skillfully conveys Catherine’s transformation. In act one, she’s ill at ease and fearful when addressing her father, appearing to apologize for her very presence. But as she gains strength, her entire demeanor changes, her posture erect and her gestures forceful. While Catherine grows in power, her father weakens. Whalen seems to shrink in size after he reveals the doctor’s illness. Martin shows us the many faces of Morris, none of them very likable. 

Nancy Robinette

As Lavinia, Robinette dominates every scene she’s in, providing on some occasions comic relief and on others poignant reflections on being a woman alone. Her loneliness gets to the heart of her befriending Morris and pressuring Catherine to take him back. In Lavinia’s view, even being with a scoundrel like Morris is better than being alone. 

The supporting cast turns in strong performances. Besides Schraf as the diligent maid, Maria, they include: Lise Bruneau as  Morris Townsend’s widowed sister; Lorene Chesley as Marian Almond, Catherine’s cousin; Nathan Whitmer as Arthur Townsend, Marian’s fiancé; and Janet Hayatshahi as Catherine’s Aunt Elizabeth.

Laura C. Harris

Period plays rise to another level when the set, costumes, wigs, lighting, and sound excel. That’s the case here, but we give a special call out to Costume Designer Ivania Stack for the sumptuous gowns worn by Catherine and the other women in the cast. 

Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Top: Laura C. Harris and James Whalen

The Heiress
Directed by Seema Sueko
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, SW

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About Charlene Giannetti (303 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "1Life After You," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in 2019. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.