Not the Usual Washington Square

In Henry James 1880 novel Washington Square, a bitter father punishes his plain, naive daughter (for her mother’s death and for not being like her) by denying affection and keeping her cloistered. He assumes no man would want Catherine but for expected inheritance and severs her from the only suitor who gives the young woman hope. Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the novel for the stage as The Heiress, last produced on Broadway in 2013. In 1949 and 1997, namesake films were produced. There’s a ballet and an opera.

George Demas (Dr. Sloper); Britt Genelin (Catherine) Photo by Regina Betancou

The book, both films and the last Broadway version have certain things in common. Catherine’s father, the abusive Dr. Sloper, is intractable in his feelings and behavior. Aunt Penniman (who lives with them) realizes her niece’s only chance is with a young man who, though he admittedly wants the money, may provide security and companionship. The older woman does what she can to bring them together. James wrote that suitor Morris Townsend broke off his alliance with no explanation. In other interpretations, he doesn’t show up the night he’s to carry off Catherine against her father’s wishes. In all, when he appears at her door years later, the heroine rejects him, resigned to spinsterhood.

Though its bones are the same, writer/director (and Axis Artistic Director) Randy Sharp reimagines James’ characters. In terms of direction, Dr. Sloper (George Demas) is more vociferous than predecessors whose virulent harshness seethed. Volume dilutes malevolence. In terms of character, this father admits he’s “not a good man” (I don’t recall this awareness in previous scenarios) though it doesn’t change his behavior.

Dee Pelletier (Aunt Penniman); Brit Genelin (Catherine) Photo by Pavel Antonov

Aunt Penniman (Dee Pelletier) is no longer selfless, but rather personally excited by and enamored of Townsend to such a degree she arranges countless clandestine meetings on false pretenses and wildly flirts. She’ll live with the couple (after her brother’s death) basking in the glow of Morris’s looks and attention. “I will be there to guide you.” I bought all this plausibility except a leaping arabesque which was way over the top. Pelletier is an accomplished delight.

As Morris Townsend, Jon McCormick shows not an ounce of either seductive prowess or modest affection. Cocky and mercenary, the character is one color. I miss a conflicted young man who craves the respectability and shield of money, but makes a bargain to husband his wife. (See Montgomery Clift in the first film.) Even if that take is rejected, however, this portrayal is too abrupt to capture any young woman’s heart.  

Britt Genelin (Catherine); Jon McCormick (Morris Townsend) Photo by Pavel Antonov

Here Catherine (Britt Genelin) is so naïve and wide-eyed she seems simple/unbalanced. Refusing to stroll with Morris and her aunt in one parentheses, we find her in the next, standing on a chair, then knees folded, bustle up, leaning into him, teasingly shaking her finger. Instant elimination of all ladylike habits (based on the possibility of his love) is not credible. Catherine must be convinced. Though we believe blind adherence to her father’s wishes and lack of self worth, changes of mind feel erratic. There’s no sense of “coming around.” Nor do I understand what looks like glee when she finally denies Morris. as directed, one presumes, Ms. Genelin does well.

Randy Sharp’s direction lacks fluidity. Too often actors stand without gesture or stage business as if waiting for someone else’s line. Dr. Sloper’s revulsion of his offspring is well manifest. Aunt Penniman’s adoration is palpable. Catherine’s questioning her appearance in a mirror works well, though the actress is far too pretty. We never see the shock of abandonment.

Composer/sound designer Paul Carbonaro contributes evocatively. There’s no credit for two armchairs which comprise the entire set. Karl Ruckdeschel’s costumes are lavish and wonderful, but one can’t help wonder if the budget was blown there. We see a wedding gown for only minutes and miss at least a rug and lamp in the so-called salon.

Opening Photo by Pavel Antonov

Axis Company presents
Washington Square
Written and Directed by Randy Sharp based on the Henry James novel

Axis Theater
One Sheridan Square

About Alix Cohen (1432 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.