Jessica Chastain is ‘The Heiress’
By Isa Goldberg
Jessica Chastain ("The Help," "Tree of Life") is not really beautiful as "The Heiress." In her Broadway debut, the famously radiant redhead appears, to the contrary, quite plain. As Catherine Sloper, she hides in the kitchen when guests arrive or languishes with her head bowed in awkward withdrawal. Indeed, if these were modern times, we’d conclude that she’s on the Asperger’s spectrum. In fact, her father, the illustrious doctor, played by David Strathairn ("Good Night, and Good Luck"), clearly observes her that way, describing her as "an entirely mediocre defenseless creature without a shred of poise." So focused is he on her shortcomings, that he makes it seem to us that her condition is his self-fulfilling prophecy.
Director Moises Kaufman brings a contemporary sensibility to Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, adapted from Henry James 1880 novel, "Washington Square." In his hands, this Victorian era drama depicts the ugliness of men and the predatory nature of the patriarchy with alarming rawness.
As Catherine’s custodian, and the patriarch who holds her in golden chains, Strathairn delivers an agile portrayal of an oppressor – one so remorselessly aloof that he’s never suffocating, just borderline hateful, as well as ironic and self-mocking. He is as controlling as he is dismissive of her. And lest anyone find themselves without a wink of humor, Judith Ivey portrays Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia as a perfectly self-confident, and strangely self-deluded, if not utterly insignificant old lady with a scratchy voice that peaks resoundingly in the most unwelcome moments.
Light cuts through designer Derek McLane’s family drawing room, with its dark wood and deep red tones, when family and guests arrive. Costumed by Albert Wolsky, in gold, baby blue, and other more earthy tones, the blackness of the Slopers’ lives is fortunately (or not so fortunately) disrupted. But it quickly becomes heartbreaking to watch this "weak young woman with a large fortune" fall for a young man’s advances. Portrayed as a bon vivant, albeit one lacking in personality, Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens of "Downton Abbey) focuses on her immediately upon meeting her.
Even though the two actors appear to lack chemistry, their meeting is supposed to be love at first sight, making the situation doubly ambiguous. On one hand, these two actors don’t belong together, but on the other the two characters don’t observe the gulf between them. It’s an odd riff. In any case, Dan Stevens’ Morris may be a gold digger, but he doesn’t appear to be a gravedigger. There is a certain sense in which he may provide the contentment her father forbids.
Fortunately, Chastain drives the forbidden love affair to a far more modern conclusion. Ultimately, the men in her life merge. Morris becomes no more caring of her than her father was. And when she finally bolts the door to prevent him from entering her home, he wails "Catherine. Catherine," in a voice that so resembles David Strathairn’s that we see that her predicament has come full circle. Whether or not the voices are the same, she certainly hears them that way, so much so that in the play’s final moments, as she carries the lamp up the grand staircase, Catherine appears neither confined to her past nor free to live in ignorance of it. The once graceless, and intellectually feeble young woman asserts her independence at whatever the price may be.
"The Heiress" is at the Walter Kerr Theatre (219 West 48th St). For tickets call 212-239-6200, visit Telecharge.com or go to the box office.
Photography: Joan Marcus
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