I attended The Heiress, a play about lost love, on Valentine's Day in the company of a couple of reformed bachelors. Until recently, each of us had bombed at romance, and had resigned himself to whatever the equivalent of male spinsterhood is. Our postplay discussion--about leading with your heart instead of your head, and what happens when one waits for love that never arrives--proved more interesting than the nearly three-hour production we'd just witnessed. Although we disagreed on whether we'd seen comedy or tragedy, high art or dismal failure, my friends--one a Henry James scholar, the other a huge fan of the original film--agreed that Arizona Theatre Company's production was deficient in very big ways.
The Heiress, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, was first adapted for the stage in 1947, and two years later was made into a wonderful film for which Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar. The play was revived on Broadway in 1995 and netted a Tony Award for lead actress Cherry Jones; that version was filmed last year with Jennifer Jason Leigh in the title role. (James has been enjoying a revival of sorts: Besides Washington Square, his Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove have recently been made into movies.)
James would probably have enjoyed all this attention. He tried writing for the stage and failed miserably; on opening night of his Guy Domville in 1895, his curtain call was booed. Ruth and August Goetz, who translated James' novel in the '40s for both stage and screen, fared better; their original adaptation was warmly received, and their screenplay won an Oscar in 1949.
Set in New York in 1850, The Heiress concerns Catherine Sloper (Anne Torsiglieri), a wealthy young woman who's swindled by two men: her father (Ken Ruta), who resents her because his wife died giving birth to her, and her suitor, Morris (Robert Parsons), whom her father believes is a greedy fortune hunter. The Heiress is built on ambiguities; we're never sure of the motives of any of the players. Even after the final curtain, we're meant to wonder whether Morris loved Catherine or her money; whether Dr. Sloper is looking after his daughter or punishing her for "killing" her mother. The simple story disguises a complicated subtext about love and avarice, and relies on a refined, wide-ranging performance by its lead actress to push it past the footlights.
Unfortunately, Torsiglieri never fully inhabits her character, and she's allowed to mug and preen her way through what could have been a subtle, shaded performance. Catherine is meant to be naive and childlike, but Torsiglieri plays her with far too much confidence and smarts, so that we never believe she'd be duped by a potential paramour out for her money.
Nor can we believe that Morris is the object of such profuse admiration. As written, he's a dead-on babe, so handsome that none of Catherine's companions believes he could possibly love a homely woman, so clever that he might marry for money. Parsons has neither the looks nor the acting talent to carry the role; his flat, atonal line readings and messy shag haircut are all wrong for Morris, whom we're supposed to be as dazzled by as Catherine is. We never see the indecision that Morris is meant to convey, nor the passion he's supposed to express for Catherine's accouterments. Parsons couldn't convince a fourth grader to give him her lunch money.
There's little technical support for the actors. Although she receives special billing in the program, wig master Margi Shaw's creations look as if they're made of yarn and styled with a cheese slicer. Even the set design is disappointing. Both acts take place in the Slopers' large, elegant parlor, a room meant to indicate that its inhabitants are people with bankrolls where their hearts ought to be. Kate Edmunds' set is a cheap, slightly shabby imitation of wealth. Only Laura Crow's costuming is appropriate and functional: She dresses Torsiglieri in huge, clownish period dresses whose colors and design make this attractive actress appear sallow and clumsy.
Director David Wheeler's messy work here belies his impressive resume. For more than a decade, Wheeler's been the resident director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where he presumably makes a distinction between comedy and drama in his work. The Heiress is a melodrama, a form that's perilously close to comedy, and Wheeler too often allows his actors to slip into broad, comic interpretations that lead the audience into laughter at the expense of characters we're supposed to like and sympathize with.
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He never settles on a tone for the play, so that, when Catherine delivered the play's most heart-wrenching speech halfway through the second act, most of the audience members laughed. By this point, they were lost, uncertain whether they were watching a drama or a comedy, and weren't sure how to react. Wheeler's flabby direction leaves the story's ambiguities unresolved and its audience floundering.
Seeing The Heiress so badly fumbled was depressing--like bumping into an old boyfriend who's let himself go--and surprising, given ATC's track record and tremendous resources. An expensive production guided by a veteran director shouldn't look like a cheap imitation of art, and a melodrama meant to evoke romance and the pain of lost love shouldn't generate more laughter than tears.
Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Heiress continues through Saturday, February 21, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.