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Henry James (1843-1916) wrote several plays himself, but in the century since his passing third-party stage adaptations of his novels and short stories have enjoyed a much more active life. The now-complete Benjamin Britten centennial season brought several operatic settings of these works back into the limelight, reacquainting stage audiences with the dark overtones and disturbing themes in many of James’s works. With this acquaintance in mind, audiences approaching The Heiress (now playing at the Jungle Theater) should expect that things are going to turn out the exact opposite of well for at least one of the principals–but who?
This lavishly staged story is an adaptation of Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square. The late Victorian period play unfolds entirely inside a house in what was then the most fashionable neighborhood in Manhattan–a house whose luxury captures the heart of Morris Townsend (John Catron). Morris proceeds to court the titular heiress, Catherine Sloper (Kate Guentzel), who is guarded by her ever-watchful father Dr. Austin Sloper (Jeffrey Hatcher). Whether or not Morris loves Catherine for more than her money is a major theme in the play, and Catron’s performance keeps us guessing. Is Morris’s smoldering charm real or affected? Either way, it’s riveting to watch, with the eye-catching action tightly directed in the expansive house; both the direction and set design are by Bain Boehlke.
Much could be said of the virtues of the script, which premiered in a lauded 1947 Broadway starring this reviewer’s namesake. The dialogue sparkles, the characters feel full and rich, and the sense of family history is profound. Hatcher and Wendy Lehr (as Aunt Penniman) have the sort of on-stage sibling relationship that instantly feels true-to-life, and many of the parent-child remarks that pass between Dr. Sloper and Catherine are delivered with a veracity that could induce flashbacks. The cast fits the material like a glove.
Several of the Jungle Theater’s plays this season have made excellent use of sound; here, bird chirps, clip-clops, and bells are tightly worked into the drama. Sean Healey’s cues seem to arise naturally and realistically out of the environment at exactly the right (and, sometimes for the characters, wrong) time. The period costumes by Amelia Cheever have a less pronounced impact, but have many simple touches that suit the particular characterizations. Center stage, however, is taken by the set designed and decorated by Boehlke and John Novak. It’s little surprise that Morris/Catron falls in love with the house, even aside from whoever is in it. The house, like the play, is lovely to look at.
CORRECTION 7/2/2014: The heiress is Catherine, played by Kate Guentzel — not, as originally written, Maria played by Valarie Falken.