Is it really so inconceivable that a man might desire Catherine Sloper, an awkward unmarried young woman, for more than her sizable inheritance? To her father Austin, such a notion is ludicrous; she can barely drink her tea without the cup chattering against the saucer, nor curtsey without nearly tumbling to the floor.
In Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s expertly plotted play The Heiress, currently being revived on Broadway, first impressions deceive throughout — though Catherine, outwardly dull, initially latches onto a charismatic gentleman caller by the name of Morris Townsend, neither his charm nor her mousy reticence ought to fool audiences into complacency. Both are characters far more complex and more rewarding than mere pencil sketches; they’re oil paintings, lustrous and shaded by loneliness and self-deception.
Set in New York in the late nineteenth century (sets and costumes are sumptuously designed by Derek McLane and Albert Wolsy respectively), the production, expertly directed by Moisés Kaufman, takes place entirely in the richly furnished front parlor of Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathairn), a wealthy physician who underestimates his daughter Catherine (Jessica Chastain) at every turn. When Morris (Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame) begins a whirlwind courtship with his daughter, proposing after a mere two weeks, Dr. Sloper can’t help but jump to the conclusion that he’s after her sizable dowry — $10,000 a year from her deceased mother.
Though the two young lovers are soon blissfully engaged, they both desperately seek the doctor’s approval. For Catherine, it’s a matter of family honor, but for Morris the stakes are even higher — on top of Catherine’s already-sizable inheritance is the promise of $20,000 more a year for the doctor’s portion of the estate, but only if he approves of their marriage and leaves the clause in his will.
Throughout, the Goetzes keep us guessing as to the outcome of the play — will Catherine fall victim to Morris’s ne’er-do-well scheming, or will she slough him off despite the distinct possibility of her perpetual spinsterhood? Jessica Chastain’s performance as Catherine first and foremost grounds the production in mystery. Though her delivery is occasionally deadpan beyond the bounds of characterization, Chastain imbues Catherine with an awkward grace that keeps us firmly on her side. I don’t see Chastain becoming the versatile actress of her generation, but she’s immensely effective here, her weaknesses turned to strengths within Kaufman’s finely tuned ensemble.
Dan Stevens, sure to be one of the main draws of the production to Downton fangirls, is similarly impressive (and plenty handsome) as Morris. In a role that could easily be marked by the obvious signposts of deception, Stevens shows us not only the glossy panache of Morris’s sure-footed bent for deception in the play’s first act but also the vulnerable compulsions of a sad, spendthrift wastrel as he crawls back to Catherine nearer its conclusion.
Though the aforementioned stars will likely sell the most tickets, they’re equaled, possibly even bettered, by their elders, David Strathairn as Austin and Judith Ivey as Catherine’s aunt and confidante, Lavinia Penniman. Strathairn offers an extraordinarily layered performance; though his character tosses a number of villainously callous barbs his daughter’s way, behind his cruel exterior we see a man still reeling from the death of his wife, unable to see the goodness and beauty in his own daughter, who in his view pales in comparison.
When the doctor returns from a trip to Paris bearing a strange new device, a stethoscope, he exclaims, “It’s for listening to people’s hearts… I wish I had had it years ago.” For all of Dr. Sloper’s tin-eared unkindness, an audience can easily empathize with one of his foremost objections to Catherine’s and Morris’s marriage: that Morris, currently unemployed, is after his daughter’s money above all else.
Aunt Lavinia can’t help but fall under the spell of a handsome new face when Morris first comes to call on Catherine. The two become fast friends and even spend time alone discussing his prospects for Catherine’s future; after Austin’s objections are raised, Ivey’s Lavinia, a natural born romantic, can’t help but side with the lovers, defending Morris’s intentions for Catherine as perfectly respectable in her usual cheery way. As the play turns, however, we come to see her own intentions as less than pure. Rather than being wholly oblivious to Austin’s concerns, we find that she’s not only aware of them but supportive of the match in spite of them, believing Morris might be her best, last hope for a respectable life.
It’s on Lavinia’s unexpected turn and Catherine’s realization of similar sentiments that the play hinges, and it’s with nail-biting rapture that an audience gets caught up in the travails of our heroine Catherine, who ultimately learns that her lot in life may be dependent neither on romance nor money — instead it may end up hinging on her own freedom. What a daring thought for a woman of her time.