“The Heiress”

Photo by John Lamb

Play:        “The Heiress”

Group:        Kirkwood Theatre Guild

Venue:        Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road

Dates:        March 10, 11, 12

Tickets:    $18; contact 314-821-9956

Story:    Everything about Dr. Sloper suggests elegance.  He is a respected and wealthy physician residing in Washington Square, a tony part of New York City in 1850.  His handsome house is home to his widowed sister, Lavinia, as well as his unmarried daughter Catherine, whose mother died in childbirth.  His maid, Maria,  efficiently tends to the more mundane needs of the family.

    Dr. Sloper does little to mask his disappointment in his shy, plain daughter, the antithesis in his opinion of her beautiful, lively mother, whose portrait looms large over their front parlor as well as their lives.  When Catherine’s cousin arrives one evening with her fiance Arthur and her mother, Dr. Sloper’s sister Elizabeth, she also unexpectedly brings along Arthur’s cousin Morris.

The latter is a handsome, roguish charmer who soon beguiles the timid Catherine with his wooing ways.  When he quickly proposes marriage, he sets off alarms in Dr. Sloper, who sees the wastrel youth as a fortune hunter lured by Catherine’s healthy inheritance from her mother as well as her future wealth when her father passes away.  Catherine finds herself in a quandary, unwilling to anger her domineering father but reluctant to give up her chance at romance and happiness.

Highlights:    This lengthy (three hours), two-act drama written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1947 and based on Henry James’ sprawling 1880 novel, “Washington Square,” captured the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 1995.  It’s a handsome, old-fashioned yarn that relies on the rich character development and plot created by famed storyteller James to intrigue its audience.  The best part of the Kirkwood Theatre Guild production presently being performed is the chance to appreciate the depth and sophistication of James’ character analysis, especially his keen look at the psychological treatment of women in 19th century America.

Other Info:    The Sunday afternoon performance by the Guild cast played to a sold-out throng, many of whom audibly reacted to the mistreatment of the title character both by her callous father and her calculating suitor.  Scenic designers Jan Meyer and Gary Sibbitts provided a pleasing patrician set, filled with sumptuous furniture, ornate rug and classy drapes that adorn the stage and set the tone for this high-brow period piece.  Cherol Thibaut’s costumes are wondrously extravagant in depicting the upper-class Slopers as well as Morris’ poor sister Mrs. Montgomery and the servant attire of Maria.  Lee Meyer adds the suitable lighting, Ren Binder contributes hair and makeup design, prop managers Jan Carson and Terri Honeyball add quaint accoutrements to enhance the set’s look and sound designer Joe Arno provides a bounty of harpsichord numbers that are easy on the ears.

    Deborah Dennert delivers the best performance in the nine-member cast as Dr. Sloper’s belittled sister Lavinia.  She nicely conveys the widow’s sympathy for her niece’s plight while also showing the silliness in which women of her society were imprisoned.  Betsy Gasoske also is fine as Mrs. Montgomery, a lady who chooses her words carefully and kindly in response to the doctor’s blunt questions about her brother.

    Elizabeth Graveman does well as the dutiful Maria, and there is satisfactory work by Jan Niehoff as Elizabeth, JD Wade as Arthur and Jessica Lyle as Marian.  Sara Strawhun does a credible job as the dowdy, mousy title character, showing the maturing strength of her character as she reacts to her mistreatment.  Jake Bantel is OK as Morris but never gets beyond portraying the suitor as anything but shallow and self-centered.  As Dr. Sloper, Richard Hunsaker understands the power of his role but consistently underlines every syllable with an annoying gravity that stretches this overly long exercise out even further.

    Meyer’s direction is loving and dutiful but way too precious as well. As a result, the pace is languid and even tortuous at times.  Amping up the emotions and activities on stage would go a long way to improving the production, which needs 30 minutes trimmed from its flabby presentation.

    The best part of the show, though, is renewing an appreciation for Henry James and his savvy, sophisticated look at his life and times.

Rating:    A 3 on a scale of 1-to-5.