BWW Reviews: Elegant Heiress at Pasadena Playhouse
by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz
directed by Damaso Rodriguez
through May 20
Upon seeing The Heiress, based on Henry James' novel Washington Square, one is transported to a distant world. If middle-class values existed, they were certainly not recognized by the inhabitants of 1850 Washington Square, where members of the elitist branch of society insisted on being surrounded by only wealth and privilege. When poor Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) asks for the hand in marriage of plain, rich Catherine Sloper (Heather Tom), he is branded a fortune hunter and shunned by her uncontrollably cruel father Dr. Austin Sloper (Richard Chamberlain). Now in a most stunning revival at the Pasadena Playhouse under the elaborate direction of Damaso Rodriguez, a stellar cast deliver the goods and bring fresh meaning to The Heiress.
It is difficult to look honestly at a classic play and value its universality without thinking "dated". Set in the 19th century, The Heiress is a glimpse at a world that no longer exists but whose snobbery and old-fashioned conceptions of individual self-worth are still held by many two centuries later. How often does a father or mother chastise a child for not living up to their potential! And ever so detrimental to the emotional well being of that child! Dr. Sloper cannot stand the fact that his wife died because of daughter Catherine's difficult birth - he blames her for it - and constantly berates her, as she is trying desperately to win his favor and love. This kind of paternal abuse is as evil and vile as the physical kind, perhaps greater, leaving the victim without any sense of pride. Then there is the self-proclaimed love of mercenary Morris Townsend, who, despite his charms, interpreted as false or otherwise, has managed to make Catherine feel finally alive...and somewhat loved, even if it is not completely. As she herself proclaims at one point, it is certainly better than the attention she has been getting.