Although Gerald Gutierrez’s direction can’t be undervalued, “The Heiress” is not by any stretch “director’s theater.” This is not new life through hyper-stylization (a la “An Inspector Calls”) but rather an intelligent, clear-eyed telling of a well-made play. The melodrama hasn’t so much been eliminated as confronted head-on and presented unapologetically.
The result is surprisingly effective, notwithstanding the familiarity of the tale (the last Broadway revival, in 1976, featured Richard Kiley, Jane Alexander and David Selby in the lead roles). Despite a perceptible shift in tone at the play’s end, “The Heiress” remains true to the version most will remember, the 1949 movie that starred an Oscar-winning Olivia de Havilland.
Then, as now, the heiress is Catherine Sloper (Cherry Jones), a plain Jane whose charm evaporates in the company of others and who seems destined to a life of spinsterhood, albeit wealthy spinsterhood. Although an intelligent conversationalist with her compassionate Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Frances Sternhagen), Catherine is never more tongue-tied than when around her critical, overbearing father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Philip Bosco). Although he disguises his disappointment in his awkward daughter as loving concern, he in fact has never forgiven the girl for being born: His beloved wife died in childbirth.
Into the well-appointed parlor of the Sloper household (wonderfully detailed in John Lee Beatty’s rich set, which recreates a Washington Square home circa 1850) comes Morris Townsend (Jon Tenney), a handsome rake as charming as he is penniless. Within two weeks of meeting Catherine, Morris has proposed. The love-struck girl accepts over her father’s objections — Dr. Sloper has so little regard for her that he can’t imagine a man like Morris being attracted to anything other than her money.
That Dr. Sloper turns out to be right doesn’t mitigate his cruelty, and Catherine’s heartbreaking realization of her plight — she is and will remain unloved and alone — is a powerful denouement, both in the writing and in Jones’ breathtaking performance. Fans of late, late shows will know what happens next, and how Catherine exacts her revenge; they won’t expect this Catherine’s steely self-acceptance, a resignation that suggests more emotional complication than the film’s finale.
Under Gutierrez’s sure hand, the exceptional cast never falters. Bosco is made to order as the cold, pompous father. As the aunt, Sternhagen must convey both love for her niece and the suspicion that the girl’s father is correct in his distrust of the suitor, and the actress finds just the right balance. The ensemble of players, including those in lesser roles, is without exception top-rate.
But it is Jones’ Catherine that holds the play together and the audience entranced. Catherine begins in a state of near-pathological shyness, blossoms in love, is crushed by loss and re-emerges with both resignation and self-confidence. Jones makes the shifts seamless and is utterly convincing through every second. Her heiress has more to offer than Dr. Sloper could ever imagine. Happily, this production offers more than one would ever expect.
Fred F. Finkelhoffe presentation of Jed Harris production, staged by Harris; setting, Raymond Sovey. Opened Sept. 29, ’47, at the Biltmore Theater, N.Y.; $ 4 .80 top.
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Dr. Austin Sloper), Patricia Collinge (Lavinia Penniman), Wendy Hiller (Catherine Sloper), Peter Cookson (Morris Townshend); Fiona O’Shiel, Katherine Raht, Craig Kelly, Augusta Roeland, Betty Linley.