“The Heiress” at Arena Stage is a Stylish, Well-Crafted, and Fascinating Melodrama

By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor

(L-R) Laura C. Harris (Catherine Sloper) and Jonathan David Martin (Morris Townsend) in “The Heiress”. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

And I enjoyed it immensely! I promise you, if you are not on the edge of your seat for much of the first and the entire second act trying to decide who is telling the truth and who is profiting from some skillful manipulation of this shy, delicate-seeming spinster with an enormous inheritance, I’ll eat my hat! Spoiler Alert: When the purportedly dull, retiring Catherine Sloper, skillfully acted by Laura C. Harris, finds her voice and comes roaring back…well, more about that later!

(L to R) Laura C. Harris (Catherine Sloper) and James Whalen (Dr. Austin Sloper) in “The Heiress”. Photo by C. Stanley Photograph

Arena Stage’s entirely woman-produced production makes our #MeToo movement of today feel like it really began in the mid-19th century, the timeframe of this play. What began as a Henry James novella titled “Washington Square” set in the 1850’s and published serially in a magazine, blossomed into the play, “The Heiress”, in 1945, adapted for the stage by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. In 1949 their adaptation was made into a critically acclaimed movie featuring Olivia De Havilland as dull and plain Catherine and Montgomery Clift as the dashing social climber, Morris Townsend.

L-R) Jonathan David Martin (Morris Townsend) and Nancy Robinette (Lavinia Penniman) in “The Heiress”. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

The story in a nutshell is that of a plain woman who has been browbeaten by a rich, handsome father. He longs for her to just be like her beautiful, accomplished, and clever mother, who died when Catherine was born. Imagine having that as a legacy! When a handsome, charming, but penniless and lazy young man comes into Catherine’s life and “woos” her with fawning, ridiculous compliments and promises, she is skeptical, and initially believes her father’s gloomy summary of the situation when he actually says to Catherine that this young man is an inheritance-seeking ne’er-do-well who couldn’t possibly love a dull woman like her!

Eventually, she (and we right along with her) begins to think that maybe her suitor IS telling her the truth. Maybe he really does love her. After all he’s been honest with her about his lack of funds and Catherine, though appearing to be dull when her overbearing father is around, has a natural gift for storytelling and fun and we can see how beaten down she has become. Thereby hangs the tale…

Nancy Robinette (Lavinia Penniman) in “The Heiress”. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

The director, Seema Sueko, happily for the audience, plays up the comedic side of what could be just another melodrama, and Nancy Robinette as Lavinia Penniman, Catherine’s paternal aunt, gives an effortless and completely believable, bumbling, and hilarious, but nuanced performance, almost stealing the show from the other very capable, first rate actors! Those terrific actors include: Lise Bruneau as Mrs. Montgomery; Lorene Chesley as Marian Almond; Janet Hayatshahi as Elizabeth Almond; Jonathan David Martin as Morris Townsend; Kimberly Schraf as Maria; James Whalen as Dr. Austin Sloper (whom I wanted to hiss at during the curtain calls for portraying such an unforgivingly mean father!); and Nathan Whitmer as Arthur Townsend/The deRhams’ Coachman.

The elegant, but spare set design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and sumptuous costumes by Ivania Stack for the women in mostly bright pretty colors perfect for the hoop-skirted antebellum period, as well as the expert direction by Deputy Artistic Director, Seema Sueko, make great use of the in-the-round situation in Arena’s Fichhandler Auditorium. The lighting by Sherrice Mojgani was perfection and the sound by Emma M. Wilk was quite good, which is difficult at best in that large, but handsome space.

Spoiler Alert: When Catherine ends the play declaring “I can do anything now!” you know Catherine has found her voice and will never look back. It’s a new day, baby!

Performance and Ticket Information:

The performance of “The Heiress” at Arena Stage plays through March 10, and runs 3 hours with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets may be purchased online at arenastage.org, by phone at 202-488-3300 or at the Arena Stage Sales Office at 1101 Sixth Street, SW, DC.