Youth will have its day, but there’s something to be said for old pros. Richard Chamberlain, who back in the day commanded the small screen in “Shogun” and “The Thorn Birds,” shows a company of whippersnappers what command is all about in Pasadena Playhouse’s revival of “The Heiress.” The younger generation isn’t up to his level, but Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s venerable 1947 warhorse comes through anyway for good old-fashioned entertainment, overlong but absorbing.
Though the vehicle adapts austere, tony Henry James’s “Washington Square,” it’s always held a greater debt to low melodrama than high literature. (Good thing, too; James was a lousy dramatist.) Repressed, timorous Catherine Sloper (Heather Tom) is tied to metaphorical railroad tracks by not one but two antagonists: the autocratic father (Chamberlain) contemptuous of the pallid progeny who killed his beloved wife in childbirth; and a mysterious suitor (Steve Coombs) with romantic patter and ambiguous motives.
This Pauline’s perils keep an audience rapt even when, as in Pasadena, the actress overuses the same stifled giggle and breathlessness on line after line after line. It’s a pity helmer Damaso Rodriguez couldn’t or wouldn’t push her to greater variety of voice and manner. For that matter, Coombs tries so hard he tips his hand, and would do better with a subtler seduction of the fly into his spiderweb.
But Chamberlain shows everyone the power of deceptive ease.
As Dr. Sloper, the former Dr. Kildare wields the energy and technique of a thesp half his age (nearing 80). This tyrant is much less neurotically haunted, more blithe than Ralph Richardson’s celebrated turn in the 1949 movie. Chamberlain’s controlling thumb on everyone’s lives is even crueller in its offhandedness.
Better still, he’s able to maintain the illusion of being in daughter’s corner until the very last moment when, illness clouding his judgment, he commits the fatal reveal which animates the latter third of the evening. Thesp earns the audience’s hisses, but engages our hearts too in this intriguing take on a complex role.
It’s all effectively framed within John Iacovelli’s drawing room set, conveying a real sense of psychological enclosure beyond its elegant photorealism. One entrapment element is unfortunate: Because the upstage landing is narrow and obscured by a wide settee, key confrontations like the act one closer are lost, and Catherine’s famous walk up the stairs barely registers.