BWW Review: THE HEIRESS Inherits the EPAC Stage
If you're familiar with that piece of Manhattan real estate called Washington Square, you probably think of it as that park that borders on NYU. If you're a little - let's not say how much - older, you also think of a particularly nifty little folk instrumental by The Village Stompers back in 1963 (excuse me whilst I hide my vinyl record collection). Chances are you're not thinking about the novel by Henry James, though it was one of his most popular, but you may, if you're fond of Montgomery Clift or Olivia de Havilland, remember the movie THE HEIRESS, based on the novel, or if you were following Broadway a few years ago, you may have run into the Broadway revival of the original play THE HEIRESS, with Jessica Chastain in the title role. (Fans of "the" movie Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone, may know that he received a Tony nomination for appearing in the original play.)
Director Edward Fernandez is presenting it at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, where taking a cue from the revival, he provides a set lush enough to convince you to move into the house in question, that of Dr. Austin Sloper (Kenneth Seigh), a popular physician whose bedside manner must be better than his interfamilial relationship skills. Brusque with his widowed sister Lavinia (Elizabeth Pattey, in as fine form as ever, holding audience attention merely by fanning herself), somewhat short with other relatives, like Marian (Rachel Faust) and Elizabeth (Robin Payne) Almond, he's positively an ice block with his socially inept daughter Catherine (Megan Riggs), partly because he blames her for the childbed death of the wife he adored, partly because Catherine has so few social skills, and is so shy, that she barely exists.
It's a testament to Megan Riggs' skills that my immediate reaction to Catherine was "what's wrong with her?" Then I realized that it is Catherine, not Riggs, who is pathologically withdrawn, and that it's a tremendous challenge for a performer, someone who's naturally extroverted, at least on stage, to come on to a stage and be just that tongue-tied, that frozen in place, that completely introverted and socially awkward. And we must see that opening inability to speak in front of even another family member without terror in order to appreciate her tremendous growth throughout the play. Riggs brings that transformation to vivid life.
Brian Viera plays Morris, the handsome, charming young man who appears completely smitten with Catherine despite her social flaws and her plain looks, and who seems to dote on Aunt Lavinia, practically a second mother to him, or so it looks. But Sloper, either vilely or sensibly, believes that Morris can't really love his daughter and is only after her inheritance.
Who's right, Morris in his protestations of love, or Sloper in his efforts to block the only affection his daughter credits? Viera gives a marvelous portrayal of a man who looks enthralled but may be a calculating bastard, while Seigh is thoroughly convincing as a man who looks like a completely cold and unloving louse - and just may be one - but who might just the best for his daughter, or who might truly want to protect his own money. They are the two poles between which Catherine is spun, and the drama of the piece is based on her choices, and whether she's capable of making decisions that will control the rest of her life. Her growth is the result of those choices, and growth, while it's always growth, isn't always for the best. Roses grow, but so do cancers - what is growing in Catherine's life?
Henry James wrote a larger number of novels with supernatural themes. There aren't any in the novel, or in the play, but it feels almost as if there should be, perhaps because there are so many metaphorical ghosts that float through the drawing room of the Slopers' Washington Square home - not only of Catherine's mother, and of Lavinia's husband, but of all the might-have-beens in the lives of everyone who enters it.
Emotionally intense, certainly well-acted, it's a play of such depth that it seems almost impossible that there is only one set in it. Surely we have been in Catherine's room, Lavinia's room, the music room, and in Europe at least once, without ever leaving the drawing room and its perpetual snifters of brandy. Unfortunately, this production only has a two-week run, closing on March 26. For tickets, visit www.ephrataperformingartscenter.com.