"When I am here with Father, it seems that no one would want to listen to me." This painful admission slips from the lips of Catherine Sloper, the almost preternaturally shy heroine of The Heiress, currently playing at Boston's Lyric Stage. Catherine feels this way for good reason. Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, is your basic 19th-century Frigidaire, almost biologically incapable of emotion except when criticizing his daughter or remembering the wife who died giving birth to her.
Dr. Sloper aside, though, over a century of readers and viewers have wanted to listen to Catherine. Washington Square, the Henry James novella from which the story derives, was one of the author's earliest successes, and Agnieszka Holland's recent film adaptation, still playing at Kendall Square Cinema, opened last month to much critical acclaim.
If anything, though, The Heiress has, on stage and film, struck a deeper popular nerve than more direct translations of James's story. Its 1947 Broadway debut was a rousing success, William Wyler's 1949 film adaptation won an Oscar for Olivia de Havilland, and 1994's Broadway sell-out revival won a trove of Tonys. The Lyric Stage production, directed by Polly Hogan and starring Paula Plum as Catherine and Michael Bradshaw as Dr. Sloper, deserves similar accolades.
Admittedly, the play itself is far from perfect and bears an uncomfortably confused attitude toward its heroine. Still, Something about Catherine, that "mediocre and defenseless creature," has always drawn the attention of some superlative artistic advocates. Like the Wyler film and the Broadway productions, this Heiress boasts an impeccable cast and a sensitive director who nearly overcome the flaws in the script with the sheer emotional power of their commitment to the work. As befits the story of a wallflower, the Lyric takes flawed material and makes of it something magnificent.
Austin Sloper, a prominent New York doctor, first enters after a day spent delivering someone's child. His solicitous care of other families stands in cruel ironic contrast to the distant, detached husk he becomes in his own household. His daughter, by contrast, exists in perpetually stunted emotional tumult. In her first line, she seeks approval from her aunt Lavinia (Eve Johnson), holding the skirt of her new dress, nervously asking, "Do you like the color?"
When Austin and Catherine share the same space, then, her discomfort is almost palpable. She stumbles over her words, retreats to the corner and darts her eyes around the room as if tapping out an S.O.S Catherine's accomplishments are few, and she is inevitably disparaged by a father who asserts that "You are good for nothing unless you are clever." Catherine has so internalized his belief in her inadequacies that she insists to her aunt she never thinks of love or marriage. You know what that means. Into the Sloper brownstone swoops Morris Townsend (Diego Arciniegas), a distant cousin-of-a-cousin just returned from some months in Europe. Translation: he is dashing, lively, vaguely exotic, and unpreoccupied with the social stringencies of Old New York.
Jaws drop in shock as Morris begins paying romantic attentions to Catherine. Both of Catherine's aunts, Lavinia and Elizabeth (Sheila Ferrini), delight in her unexpected good fortune. Dr. Sloper is predictably skeptical, for two specific reasons. One, he cannot fathom that anyone would be interested in "such a dull girl." More to the point, he has not forgotten that Catherine does have one obviously pleasing attribute: an annual inheritance of $30,000. As the program helpfully imparts, Catherine's annuity compares to about half a million Big Ones in 1997.
Could Morris's motivations be so cynical? He does describe himself as "a devil of a man," and when Catherine asks, "Are you sure that you love me," he answers only, "Can you doubt it?" Still, he seems to harbor genuine affection for her, and as Elizabeth and Lavinia suggest, if a caring husband can be attracted by the prospect of wealth, who loses? Dr. Sloper, however, refuses to see his fortune so brazenly pursued or so cannily procured. To the aunts' protests, he thunders with casually cruel frankness, "She must not love people who don't deserve to be loved--I don't."
If The Heiress is more broadly embraceable than James's work, the reason may be that its authors, Ruth and Augustus Goetz, have streamlined and softened a brittle, merciless story into something like exquisite melodrama. The characters, for whom James himself had little affection, have more obvious motivations (the extreme foregrounding of Dr. Sloper's grief for his wife, for example) and higher tides of emotional exclamation ("He must love me, someone must want me," Catherine yells. "I have never had that!"). Moreover, the authors don't ignore that dictum of audience-pleasing, "Let the underdog have her day." In fact, though, this issue of Catherine's eventual self-assertion introduces a major instability to the play. On the one hand, Catherine's recognition of her own worth and her final, shocking declaration of independence are major concessions to the audience's investment in her. The applause that inevitably greets the play's end is largely a rallying cry for a woman who has found her pride.
But at what cost? Catherine's behavior in the second act proclaims a cleverness and a sharp pragmatic bent which she has signally lacked beforehand. The Heiress seems to allow Catherine redemption on the condition that she acquire intelligence and agency; like Dr. Sloper himself, the playwrights will do nothing for Catherine so long as she is plain and retiring.
Whether or not her transformation is convincing--and Plum largely carries it off--one hates to see the work as a whole adopt the values of its own object of scorn. Simply in retitling the work The Heiress, the Goetzes define Catherine's character through her financial prospects. Nor do we delight in witnessing Catherine exchange her youthful naivete for such a bitter, scaly adulthood. This sour apple doesn't fall far from Dr. Sloper's withered tree.
Still, the cast and crew of the Lyric Stage display a broad-based and almost unimpeachable craftsmanship. Besides the major characters, all of whom are poignantly acted with psychic ambiguities intact, Hogan allows her supporting characters to shine. The full-blooded humanity of Ferrini's Aunt Elizabeth or Bobbie Steinbach's Mrs. Montgomery are intrinsically satisfying, but also serve to highlight Catherine's comparative sallowness.
Credit must also go to Janie Fliegel, the reigning queen of Boston set-design, who constructs an apartment for the Slopers that demonstrates their wealth but also communicates how isolated and restricted Catherine is by her social station.
The Heiress would be a better play if the Goetzes had as much compassion for Catherine as this cast and crew do, or if they at least portrayed her as consistently as James does. Nonetheless, small theatres don't come much better than the Lyric, and The Heiress is an evening full of riches indeed.