Theater Talk: A Review of The Heiress

Jewish Orthodox women are no strangers to the social pressure of finding a husband. Catherine Sloper, the protagonist of The Heiress, finds herself in a similar predicament when her cousin’s recent engagement throws the spotlight onto her own single-hood. Cripplingly shy and socially awkward, Catherine does not inspire the viewer with confidence that she will be able to catch herself a husband; she is the type of girl about whom others sadly comment, “Poor girl, she’ll never get married.” But that is only before we consider one important factor highlighted by the title: unlike most single girls, Catherine comes with the incentive of a large inheritance, with the title “The Heiress” clearly marking her as a financial catch for mercenary men such as Morris Townsend, the first man to show interest in her.

Written by American playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1947 and based on Henry James’s novel Washington Square, The Heiress was first produced as a film in 1949 before enjoying four successful runs on Broadway between 1950 and the present. The current production, which began previews in October and opened in November 2012 for an 18-week limited engagement at the Walter Kerr Theater, closes on February 10th, 2013.

The elaborately made, period-accurate living room set in which all the action of the play takes place draws the audience into nineteenth century New York. The characters, wearing Victorian-style costumes, ease our immersion into a believable 1850s environment.

Jessica Chastain’s convincingly awkward portrayal of the role of Catherine makes it clear to the viewer that Morris Townsend’s attentions to her cannot possibly be genuine, since there is nothing particularly likable about her. Although the viewer subconsciously acknowledges this (I personally could not stand her character throughout the entire first act), as the play unfolds and we see that Catherine’s father shares the viewer’s sentiments, we cannot but feel angry outraged on her behalf and stung by the bitter reality of it.

When Morris proves her father’s suspicions right, leaving her as soon as he realizes he will not be able to have her money, Catherine seems too weak to endure the emotional blow. Her character, however, does not fully develop until the second act, when the pacing of the play picks up and she gathers the strength to cast off those who have hurt her and who have failed to appreciate her worth. This growth in character that allowed Catherine to finally become independent makes The Heiress an ultimately powerful play with a relevant message for modern audiences about love, regrets, forgiveness, and difficult decisions.

Clocking in at just under three hours long, the play at times seems to drag on, particularly in the first act. However, the satisfyingly powerful ending makes every minute of the experience worth it.

The Heiress is playing on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater (219 West 48th Street, NYC) until February 10th, 2013.  Don’t miss the opportunity to see this play!