The Heiress at Olney's New Wonderful Theater

 I remember my last visit to Olney, Maryland, when it was a small hamlet in MontgomeryCounty, 12 miles from DC and 23 miles from Baltimore.  It was sixteen years ago when the Olney Theater was the State Summer Theater of Maryland where productions were performed in a barn-like theater, which may or may not have had air-conditioning. The show was the musical "Lucky Stiff", the first musical by the successful team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

 

Well, it has been overhauled in a most spectacular fashion into the OlneyTheaterCenter which opened its new Mainstage (429 seats)about six months ago and WOW, what a beautiful theater. It also boasts an outdoor amphitheater, and an intimate black box theater, the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theater lab. Yes, I'm jealous. Why can't the Baltimore suburbs also have the luxury of such a theater? And I have the perfect location – the new development surrounding the Owings Mills Metro station (see my Baltimore Backstage column this Friday for more about this).

 

Now…it's one thing to have a beautiful space…what's most important is what's INSIDE.

And now playing at OTC, is the Victorian stage drama of love, honor, and betrayal, "The Heiress". It opened on Broadway in 1947 starring Wendy Hiller and Basil Rathbone (remember Sherlock Holmes?).You may have seen the 1949 Academy Award nominated film version notably played by Olivia DeHavilland, Ralph Richardson, and Montgomery Clift, the 1976 Broadway revival with Jane Alexander and Richard Kiley, or the 1995 LincolnCenter production which featured a Tony winning performance by Cherry Jones and the wonderful Philip Bosco. What a pedigree.

 

Well, this professional Actor's Equity theater (with a $5.15 million budget), pulls out all the stops in presenting a wonderful production. Set in the rigidly structured society of 1850's NewYork, "The Heiress" is Ruth and Augustus Goetz' dramatization of the Henry James classic novel,

Washington Square
(a recent film of the same name was filmed recently in the area around Baltimore's
Union Square
).

 

The central character is Catherine Sloper (Effie Johnson), the shy daughter of a wealthy physician, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ted van Griethuysen). Dr. Sloper has never forgiven his only child for the fact that his beloved, beautiful wife died giving birth to her.  It is difficult to watch how the good doctor treats his daughter who he considers a "mediocre" individual and a grave disappointment.

 

Entering the picture is Morris Townsend (Jeffries Thaiss), a brash, good-looking suiter who has spent his inheritance and has nothing left. Dr. Sloper immediately suspects him to be a fortune-hunter with his eyes on Catherine's substantial inheritance.

 

Almost all  the performers are first rate. Effie Johnson plays Catherine as a comely, dull, inexperienced 19th century woman with no chance of ever finding happiness or living up to her father's expectations. This is Johnson's first venture with OTC. She recently appeared on Broadway with Denzel Washington in "Julius Caesar" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten, as standy for Cherry Jones. Griethuysen is a well-established actor who is much more handsome on stage that the awful photo of him in the program. He is very convincing as the cold-hearted father.

 

I did not find Thaiss' performance as Townsend convincing and I'm not sure why.  Was he too effeminate? Too over the top? Not handsome enough?  His is a difficult role and it may just be that he was miscast or maybe I just didn't like his character.

 

In any event, the production is well worth seeing. It is directed admirably by the OTC Associate Artistic Director, John Going (who incredible as it may seem was the director of the "Lucky Stiff  production I saw in 1990).

 

Special mention and kudos to Scenic Designer, James Wolk who's spacious set is just beautiful. It was thrilling to see the living room chandelier lowered to be lighted by candlelight and returned to his proper position. Some of the outfits by Liz Covey are atrocious but I'm sure they were intentionally so…If only the 1850's had the Bravo hit show "Project Runway".  Lighting Designer, Nancy Schertler smartly takes us through the seasons in

Washington Square
and the hours of the day with delicate light.

 

A suggestion to the staff at OTC. I believe it would be beneficial to the general audience to include in the program, the wonderful background material about the play and the Victorian era that was available to critics. Baltimore's Center Stage has paved the way in presenting such material and it greatly adds to one's enjoyment of a production.

 

Make the effort and discover a wonderful new theater and a great production.

"The Heiress" continues until March 12. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.

 

To make your experience in Olney even more enjoyable, head to the wonderful small Belgian bistro, "Mannequin Pis",

18064 Georgia Avenue
. This small intimate restaurant presents mussels 15 ways and offers a choice of 40 Belgian beers. The pommes frites alone are worth the visit. Call 301-570-4800 for reservations are a must. Check out the details at www.mannequinpis.com.


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From This Author Charles Shubow