Like an old-time mellerdrammer, South Coast Rep’s “The Heiress” covets — and receives — curtain-call cheers for the heroine and boos for the dastards that done her wrong. Such primal reactions often counterindicate artistry, of course, and those who remember the exquisite 1949 film or 1995 Gotham revival may blanch at the broad choices made by helmer Martin Benson and company. But come the climactic confrontations, this “Heiress” indubitably delivers the crowdpleasing goods.
A sturdily reliable warhorse like Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s Henry James adaptation is the bread and butter of many an institutional theater. Audiences are readily absorbed by the travails of timid, unsocialized Catherine Sloper (Kirsten Potter) in her uphill battle to land the dashing Morris Townsend (Michael A. Newcomer) over the opposition of her physician father (Tony Amendola).
Though born well after the play’s 1850 setting, both Stanislavski and Freud are usually felt presences whenever “The Heiress” is staged. Certainly the film’s Morris, played by Montgomery Clift, broods with Method intensity in persuading Catherine of his devotion, while Ralph Richardson stares with Freudian hauteur through a morphine-like haze at the despised daughter whose birth killed his beloved wife.
But no Actors Studio psychologizing clutters up Costa Mesa’s version of the Sloper manse, where the prevailing acting mode is brio, and theatrical energy carries a higher priority than 19th century decorum. (The ladies’ bloomered legs are scandalously visible throughout.) Even Tom Buderwitz’s set, gaily decorated in wedding-cake pink and beige, wants to lighten things up; it hardly seems the repository of a grim widower’s bitter memories.
Newcomer’s swooningly romantic Morris comes on to his intended as playful as a puppy, while Amendola’s doctor presides over the household with relatively unperturbed urbanity. Too much so: The ratcheting down of Dr. Sloper’s cruelty — coupled with vocal sameness and distracting hand gestures more characteristic of a safecracker than a surgeon — loosens one critical turn of the screw.
Most unconventionally, Potter turns the cripplingly shy Catherine into a whey-faced stumblebum whose father’s concerns for her effect on polite society are well founded. As startling as it is to see Catherine bumble for laughs or bound coltishly up to the second floor, the interpretation (executed smartly by the gifted Potter) yields even more sympathy than usual whenever the poor child is snubbed or humiliated, which is often.
Potter’s eventual transformation from ugly duckling to implacable avenging swan certainly rouses the audience, though at the cost of a crucial effect that can’t be fully described without giving the plot away. Suffice to say Catherine’s ultimate act — clearly intended by the script (and James) as bittersweet, to say the least — is granted a note of triumph in this production, turning Catherine into a prefeminist heroine coming into her own. It’s an audience-pleasing option, but not the coup it could have been, and has been in earlier incarnations.