a theatre, film & pop culture review
The critics have made so much of Jessica Chastain’s beauty — those cheekbones! that grace! — that you’d think she descended the staircase glowing and daintily, dolled up in an exquisite Cinderella gown and radiating rapturous joy and confidence. Surely they could have found a talented actress who wasn’t, well, a knockout to play the role of Plain Jane Catherine Sloper… right?
As someone who nearly lost her shit when the gorgeous Michael Fassbender was cast as the brooding and gruff Edward Fairfax Rochester in the recent cinematic adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, let me be the first to tell you that Chastain’s attractiveness is not at all an issue. In fact, in the first act of the play — sans makeup and donning a frowsy wig — she’s perfectly dull-looking. What is an issue, however, is Moisés Kaufman’s direction of Chastain — and of the rest of the production.
Written in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, The Heiress was adapted from a 1880 novella by Henry James called Washington Square. It is the story of Catherine Sloper, the shy and sheltered daughter of prominent New Yorker Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathairn), who is caught between the demands of her emotionally distant father and the attentions of a passionate young suitor, Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens). Catherine is painfully timid around all but her biddyish aunt (a charming, but over-the-top Judith Ivey) and, when in the presence of her father — who bitterly mourns the loss of his wife who died during childbirth — she becomes alarmingly awkward and entirely incapable of even a couple of sentences of small talk.
This is melodrama, yet Chastain’s portrayal of the unrefined spinster is one of exaggeratedly low curtsies and lines delivered for comic, not emotional effect. Surely the Juillard-trained, Oscar-nominated actress of (lord help us) The Help, who beautifully managed vivid, ethereal work in Terrence Malick’s frustratingly narrative-adverse passion project The Tree of Life, wouldn’t have come up with this interpretation on her own. Nor would David Strathairn, also Oscar-nominated and no stranger to the stage, find such a measured, nearly sympathetic take on the tyrannical, unloving patriarch without more than a bit of nudging. (Left to his own devices, would Dan Stevens of Dowton Abbey fame have been such a boyish charmer with no hint — besides the lines as written — of his lascivious greed? This, I do not know.)
Directed by Moisés Kaufman, the talented cast does a lot of standing stock-still and sitting with impeccable posture. This is Materpiece Theater given the Broadway treatment: Kaufman has created a faithful and beautiful production with the help of Derek McLane’s richly textured living-room set and Albert Wolskey’s luscious and elaborately detailed costumes, and there’s nothing terribly wrong here. As Catherine grows stronger in the second act, so does Chastain, and her struggle between pride and loneliness is made clear, and even at times powerfully compelling.
But Kaufman’s strengths lie in contemporary playwriting and directing (The Laramie Project, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), not at bringing period pieces to passionate life, and a loss of tonal sobriety would benefit his Heiress immensely. But even though the critics wouldn’t agree — they’d fiercely suggest you rent the 1949 film featuring an Oscar-winning Olivia de Havilland, or even travel back in time to see the Tony Award-winning 1995 performance of Cherry Jones in the title role — you could do much worse than spend time with this (slightly subdued) Sloper family. If nothing else, there’s always David Strathairn’s gloriously resonating voice — and I’d happily listen to him read the phone book for three hours.