An embarrassment of riches in The Heiress
In “The Heiress” by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from the 1880 novel “Washington Square” by Henry James, a woman is whatever a man tells her she should be. And no one knows better what a woman should be than the well-intentioned, patriarch Dr. Austin Sloper. Graceful, charming, engaging and entertaining, a woman is everything Austin’s dutiful daughter is not. For if Catherine Sloper is Daddy’s darling, she’s also his disappointing, ugly ducking. A plain Jane never likely to blossom into any kind of swan. Unlike her deceased mother. Like Daphne Du Maurier’s second Mrs. de Winter in “Rebecca,” Catherine is living in the shadow of an idealised dead woman she can never compete with. Receiving its first theatrical production in 1947, and revived many times since, “The Heiress” went on to become an Oscar nominated, Best Film in 1949, with Olivia De Havilland winning the Oscar for Best Actress in the role of Catherine Sloper. The Gate Theatre’s current production, directed to near perfection by David Grindley, makes a fitting contribution to “The Heiress’” illustrious history. It’s also a sumptuous theatrical feast perfect for the Christmas season.
Even a basic gender reading of “The Heiress” reveals a strong, feminist message at the heart of this production. Its presentation of patriarchal masculinity in its clash between a hard working, self made man who takes care of his women, and a possible gold digging leech prepared to live off them, reveals masculinities binary opposition to women seen as fault, victim and prize. Under Daddy’s relentless, tough loving judgments Catherine has already become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A woman killed by kindness, whose clattering charmlessness confirms her own belief that no man could ever want her. But an inheritance of thirty thousand a year could provide someone with a substantial ulterior motive for marriage. Which is exactly what Daddy thinks when the financially challenged, Morris Townsend, comes courting the awkward Catherine. Like his cigars and brandy, Catherine is Daddy’s property, whether she agrees or not. And Daddy doesn't like it when the man who came to dinner tries to take away his property. Mercenary or a match made in heaven, Morris’ arrival throws all into disarray and hearts might yet be hardened with devastating consequences.
In the Gate Theatre’s production of “The Heiress,” production values are simply off the scale. Jonathan Fensom’s set and costume designs are a stunning visual treat, bringing 1850’s New York to vivid realization. Jason Taylor’s lighting design perfectly compliments Fensom’s flawless set, as does Denis Clohessy’s evocative piano driven music and sound design. Like Fensom, director David Grindley scores three for three at The Gate following sterling work on “The Gigli Concert” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with an impeccably brilliant production, built around an exceptionally strong ensemble.
Supporting cast of Danielle Galligan as the maid Maria, Tara Egan-Langley as Mrs. Montgomery, James Murphy as Arthur Townsend, Helen Norton as Mrs. Elizabeth Almond and Mary-Lou McCarthy as Marian Almond all turn in strong performances. Marion O’Dwyer as the hopelessly romantic, Mrs. Lavina Penniman, and Donal Gallery as the hopeless Morris Townsend are each compelling. As is Denis Conway as Dr. Sloper, who turns in yet another towering performance. Karen McCartney as the eponymous heiress is also stunning, as her damaged Catherine glides along the path towards growth, or being buried alive behind the thick, unfeeling walls of Washington Square.
With neither tree nor tinsel in sight, “The Heiress” is an excellent seasonal production, albeit one with a sting in its tail. It may forego easy sentimentality for something of more substance, but thank Christmas for that. This is a production with mind, body, heart and soul, challenging unquestioned norms behind gender representation, yet with plenty of old school, seasonal charm. Channeling the spirit of James, along with those of the great English novels of Dickens, Austen and Bronte, to name but a few, “The Heiress” wraps it all up in the cozy charm of a classic black and white movie. It’s “Now Voyager” meets “The Barrett's of Wimpole Street” meets “Rebecca,” with a healthy handful of Bette Davis movies thrown in for good measure. It’s James’s psychological realism at its stark and brilliant best, and something you can curl up in comfort before and simply enjoy. So go enjoy what is likely to be one of the best shows of this Christmas season.
“The Heiress”, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from the novel “Washington Square” by Henry James, runs at The Gate Theatre until January 7th 2017.
For further information, visit The Gate Theatre