If you can overlook the absurdity of casting the ravishing Jessica Chastain as the plain and clumsy heroine of “The Heiress,” Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 stage adaptation of “Washington Square,” then Moises Kaufman’s masterfully helmed production is everything you want from a Class A revival. As is proper for a costume drama, the costumes are mouthwatering. The set is just as scrumptious, and the cast seems entirely comfortable speaking the language and thinking the thoughts of people from a bygone era — David Strathairn so much so, you’d swear he goes up the staircase to bed each night after the show.
With the exception of Agamemnon — who sacrificed Iphigenia to the gods for a good tailwind so he could sail off to fight the Trojan War — has any father ever treated his daughter as unkindly as Dr. Austin Sloper? The very face of depression in Strathairn’s haunting performance, that unhappy man is still mourning the young wife who died in childbirth 30 years ago. To keep the memory of his bride alive, he has maintained their magnificent townhouse on Washington Square exactly as it was when she decorated it in 1820 — an era of tasteful opulence that set designer Derek McLane renders in silky dark woods and luscious fabrics.
But loving memories of the dead can be cruel to the living, and Dr. Sloper’s inconsiderate comparisons of his beautiful, clever wife with his plain, dull daughter, Catherine (Chastain), are as wounding as they are unkind.
His sensible sister, Elizabeth Almond (warmly played by Caitlin O’Connell), tries to alert Dr. Sloper to the damaging effects of his constant criticisms. His flighty but sweet sister, the widow Lavinia Penniman (the adorable Judith Ivey, looking even more adorable in a mobcap), appreciates Catherine’s finer qualities and does her best to point them out to her brother. In one brief but perfect scene, played with the utmost subtlety by Strathairn and Dee Nelson, even a perfect stranger advises Dr. Sloper to find it in his heart to be kinder to his unhappy, love-starved daughter.
But a lifetime of her father’s disapproval and disappointment has molded Catherine into the very creature he despises: a dull-witted, unattractive woman without any attributes — outside her fortune — to make her appealing to a potential husband.
Under the circumstances, it’s only natural that poor Catherine should fall for a handsome but heartless fortune hunter like Morris Townsend, a charming enough fellow in Dan Stevens’ smooth performance, if rather too obviously a cad and a bounder.
The beauty of Henry James’ character work (respectfully retained in the Goetzes’ adaptation) is his ability to see beneath a person’s outer skin. James’ morally respectable women may not approve of Morris’ transparent fortune hunting, but they aren’t entirely averse to the notion of a rich woman buying a husband — provided she gets to choose him herself. Not even Aunt Lavinia, that silly romantic who aids and abets Morris’ machinations, is as gullible as she seems.
But it does take some serious play-acting to present Chastain’s Catherine as the drab little mouse everyone says she is. How to pretend that this gauche girl has committed a faux pas by appearing in a vulgar cherry-red gown when Chastain, her lovely face aglow, steps out in a stunning, figure-flattering number in a delicious shade of garnet?
(That’s not exactly a criticism, because Albert Wolsky’s multilayered and painstakingly detailed costumes — especially Aunt Lavinia’s lush mourning weeds — are a feast for the eyes.)
Chastain does her level best to find her own inner spinster, and she’s quite touching in the heart-ripping scene when it slowly dawns on Catherine that her prince will never come. But not since Julia Roberts made a brief stage appearance playing a frump has anyone struggled so hard to keep a dazzling smile in lockdown.