Is the matrimonial-minded Morris Townsend, with his smooth talk and good looks, every father’s nightmare? Or is he a principled and upstanding young man who only cares about marrying for love — and not a big, fat, juicy inheritance? Just what do we know of his background, his education, his propriety?
In 2018, these questions could probably be answered in about 0.37 seconds. But in the 1850s, the era in which Henry James set his celebrated novel “Washington Square,” Ye Olde Ghoogle wasn’t available. The uncertainty of Morris’ intentions — is this guy a gold digger or not? — helps give “The Heiress,” a resilient 1947 theatrical adaptation based on the James novel, a crisp dramatic punch.
But the bigger appeal in the well-done Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre, co-directed with aplomb by Karan Johnson and Elizabeth Fiester, is the chance to watch two fascinating women characters portrayed in strong performances.
Catherine Sloper, the “Heiress” in question, starts out the play as a bit of a sad-sack. She’s the daughter of a wealthy and prominent doctor, so you’d expect her to be quite a catch in terms of the marriage scene. But she is awkward socially, considers herself unattractive, is painfully shy and has zero self-confidence. When she meets Morris (Chase Stubblefield, in a well calibrated performance that wavers between noble and smarmy), who professes his love, it’s no wonder she falls for him. Hard.
Suzanne Grażyna is stellar as Catherine. She brings an aching sense of mediocrity to the role in the first act. Continually degraded by her imposing and belittling father (Noel Adams in a finely tuned expression of cruelty), it’s no wonder that Catherine despairs. She can’t possibly live up to the memory of her deceased mother, who has become saintly in her father’s eyes. In the 19th Century, a young woman in her position was expected to be clever and sophisticated (and also, of course, mindful of all applicable gender roles), and in this, Catherine considers herself a great failure.
Yet in the second act she begins to blossom. One of my favorite parts in this production of “The Heiress” was watching Grażyna introduce small threads of steely resolve and budding independence into the fabric of her character. As the action proceeds, in slightly pot-boiler fashion, the issue of Morris’ motivations — true love vs. economic opportunism — isn’t resolved till the end. But even as things build, you get a sense of Catherine’s growth as a fully functioning human being. Grażyna sparkles in the portrayal.
The other standout character is Lavinia, Catherine’s widowed aunt, who has moved in with her brother and niece. Again, at first glance, we see someone who is easily categorized: She’s the sympathetic and meddling relative who desperately wants to be someone’s confidante. Eager to see her niece married off, Lavinia is unabashedly Team Morris.
Amelia Ryan brings brisk comic timing and a coy, obsequious radiance to the role, but as the action progresses, she adds much more nuance and texture. In fact, as much as Catherine is the central, big-picture role, I find Aunt Lavinia to be the most interesting character in the play. Underneath her flirty, fawning facade is the soul of a rigorous pragmatist, who has appraised Catherine’s situation with a dispassionate eye. I won’t go so far as to say she wants to, ahem, “pimp out her niece,” but as things progress, you realize that Lavinia is a far more calculating individual than you might think.
The Good Company creative team does exemplary period-piece work, as usual. David Pierce’s set is suitably sumptuous, and Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s costumes are ravishing. Overall, the production is well-paced, and even though the writing in the second act feels a little long, the acting held my attention.
As for the storyline, the times are certainly different than the period in which the play is set, or even when playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted it in 1947. But all kidding about Google aside, the themes of trustworthiness and sincerity in relationships are relevant today, if but in different ways. Today’s heiresses are much more likely to run around with Kardashians and have pre-nuptial agreements, but the intersection of money and marriage can still be tricky to navigate. There’s always a chance of a red-light runner.
“The Heiress,” through June 17, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. Tickets are $20 general, $18 students and seniors.
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