Suzanne Grażyna finds female empowerment, 19th Century-style, in ‘The Heiress’
When Catherine Sloper falls for a guy, she falls hard. And that complicates her life in “The Heiress,” a new production at the 2nd Space Theatre of the 1947 Broadway play. Catherine is rich. Her new beau, Morris, isn’t. And Daddy doesn’t approve.
Though the premise might seem soapy, the inspiration isn’t. “The Heiress,” which opens Thursday, April 26, is based on the classic Henry James novel “Washington Square.” This lavish period piece might be full of 19th Century angst, but its sense of female empowerment is more than relevant today. I talked with Suzanne Grażyna, who plays Catherine, about what it’s like to play such a challenging character.
Q: Congratulations to you for being the heiress in “The Heiress.” It’s certainly a step up, socially speaking, from playing an insane street vendor with no teeth in last year’s “Fools.” Is it fun to play someone who is rich and, as they said back in the 19th Century, of “marriageable age”?
A: I loved playing The Yench! Those blacked out teeth were my idea, I don’t remember what gave me the idea! It IS fun to play someone so wealthy. Catherine’s costumes are the most luxurious I’ve ever worn, and as a clotheshorse in actual life, I feel like a princess. A vegan cupcake, even. Cathie’s got style.
Q: Tell us a little about your character, Catherine Sloper. She’s socially awkward and rather drab, right?
A: Catherine’s extremely shy, especially around the male of the species. Being in the company of her domineering father amplifies this. She is rather plain, not a belle like her cousin Marian, but I don’t think children and animals run away from her screaming. It’s more her father’s warped perception of her that looms overhead than her actually being ugly. She’s highly intelligent with a slightly dark sense of humor, which comes out mainly when she’s one on one with the other characters, with the exception of Dr. Sloper.
Q: Is Catherine head-over-heels in love with Morris Townsend (played by GCP veteran Chase Stubblefield), who some would call a fortune hunter? Or does the fact that her father (played by Noel Adams) thinks that Morris is a gold-digger make her more ardent, as sort of an act of rebellion?
A: It’s definitely The Thunderbolt. She’s smitten with him the second she lays eyes on him. Morris shows her a kindness that she’s never experienced before. There’s no physical contact between her and her father, no hugging, no expressions of love, so when Morris shows her these affections it’s completely new to her. I like to call them “Morrtherine!” Her naivete is what leads to her downfall, both with Morris and her father. She learns who these two men truly are the hard way.
Q: There’s a fourth plum role in the play: Aunt Lavinia, played by Amelia Ryan. What is the importance of that character?
A: Yes, Aunt Lavinia! She’s Catherine’s main ally throughout the play. Catherine is at her most relaxed with her Aunt, who acts as her confidante and her advocate. Aunt Lavinia sees Catherine’s worth, but at the same time is wise to Morris’s true motives. Since Catherine’s mother died in childbirth, her Aunt has been the closest thing to a mom that she’s ever had. Lavinia’s heart is always in the right place, though her actions sometimes aren’t.
Q: The play has a fairly generic title, especially considering it’s based on Henry James’ “Washington Square.” I would have thought that the playwrights (Ruth and Augustus Goetz) would have tried to capitalize more on James’ literary fame. What do you think?
A: From what I understand, the book has several other storylines in it; Catherine’s Tale is just one of them. So my guess is that the Goetz’s changed to title to The Heiress in order to reflect its focus on Catherine. I admit, I haven’t read “Washington Square.” James’ writing is quite dense. It took me two months to get through “Wings of the Dove.” One single sentence that takes an entire page?! Get out of here with that mishegas!!!
Q: New York Times critic Ben Brantley called the role of Catherine an “awards magnet” in a review of the 2012 Broadway revival, which starred Jessica Chastain. What is the biggest challenge for you as an actor in the role?
A: The biggest challenge for me, apart from the heavy line load, is purely emotional. There are several parallels between my life and Catherine’s. I understand her pain, I’ve lived through things myself, and bringing her to life has also resurrected deep hurts in me. I’m soooooo blessed to have Chase, Noel, Amy, et al for my acting partners. They’re familiar with me and certain life events, and I trust and love each of them. I’ve been terrified to take on this role, and my cast and crewmates have kept me going.
Q: Catherine is bound by the conventions of the era in which she lives, yet as a woman she fights for her own dignity and control of her life. How do you think this Jamesian character fits into today’s world?
A: In today’s world Catherine would be CEO of her own company! Her journey is definitely relevant to women today. We’re still expected to find a mate, get married, have children, sacrifice our dreams to support the family, go along with the Patriarchy, never raise our voices. HISSSSSSS. HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. If a woman wants these things, fabulous! Live that dream! That particular dream isn’t for everyone though. Catherine rises from the ashes; she shows us the Phoenix Way. Every human being can be a phoenix, can speak out for those who have no voice (especially animals and children,) can allow other people to own their dignity.
I’ve decided that after the play ends Catherine goes on to fight against slavery!
Q: You’ve been in lots of local productions over the years. Among your favorite roles are Lala Levy in The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Kaye Hamilton in “Stage Door,” Petruchio in “Taming of the Shrew” and Mrs. Trotsky in “All in the Timing.” If I had the magical power to grant you the ability to spend one day in the “world” of one of your favorite roles — these or any others — what would it be and why?
A: Wow! What a thrilling question! I think I have to go with Hermia in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She has her great love Lysander, she gets into a catfight with Helena, there’s magic and fairies and watching plays. And it’s Shakespeare! Since it’s magic realism, the time period can be changed at any time, which means a variety of outfits from different eras. Yayessss!
Q: I think you have great comic timing on stage. I don’t imagine that comedy is a big part of “The Heiress,” but I still want to ask you about it. Have you always been funny? Is it something you had to work at as an actor?
A: Thank you so much!!! (There are several comedic moments in “The Heiress,” particularly with Aunt Lavinia and Catherine.) I turned to my mom for help on this question.
Me: Mom, have I always been funny?
Mom: (Laughing and nodding her head) Yeaaaahhhh.
It’s not something I’ve had to work at, although many things have been made funnier though working with amazing directors. I think one of the main aspects of comedy, and with acting in general, is a willingness to look stupid and/or seriously unattractive. “Fools” is good example of this!
Q: You’re also a published poet, with poems nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Tell us about that part of your life. Also, feel free to share whatever you’d like about your life outside the theater — job, family, other interests, etc.
A: My writing. Yes! I started writing poetry in 2007, after a soul-crushing breakup with the love of my life. I had befriended poet Juliet Cook, and her writing inspired me to put my heartbreak into my own work. She and I collaborated on the chapbook CARNIVORACIOUS; from there I wrote, submitted, was rejected many times, was accepted a few. My two solo poetry chapbooks, “flight” and “For the dead travel fast” are available from Dancing Girl Press. I’ve begun work on a new manuscript that shaping up to be about asylums.
My other interests are my cats (my cat-daughter Daisy passed away last year during the run of “Fools,” my cat-son Henry turns 1 in a few days!), criminal psychology, Egyptology, and the Big Cats.
Q: I heard through the grapevine that the director(s) of GCP’s “The Heiress” have had some bad luck recently. First, Karan Johnson fell and badly broke her arm. And then, Elizabeth Fiester, who stepped in as director, totaled her car in an accident. (Both are OK, thank goodness). Are you making sacrifices to the theater gods in the hopes of reversing any bad karma for this production?
A: Thank the theater gods that both Karan and Biz are okay! They are two of my favorite people in the world! The Trifecta was completed last night when I fell down the stairs behind the set! Bad luck comes in threes, three we have had. NO MORE! I have two Bastet statues at my makeup mirror backstage. I’m thinking of burning some sage tonight!
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I wouldn’t be here without the support of my mom. She’s my best friend in the universe, she’s held me up when I felt like falling, and she’s believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. She’s the brightest star and I owe her everything.
“The Heiress,” opens 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 26, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. Runs through June 17. Tickets are $20 general, $18 students and seniors.