The Heiress examines love and loss
Catherine Sloper (Kate Guentzel) and Morris Townsend (John Catron)
Catherine Sloper would seem to have it all. She's the sole child of a wealthy doctor who has a sizeable inheritance from her late mother and shares a swank New York home with her father.
But appearances, of course, can be deceiving. Eligible as she is, Catherine is also shy, socially awkward, and certain that her every action disappoints her dad. Any enthusiasm she shows — for needlepoint, books, and eventually the man she loves — are belittled by the caustic Dr. Sloper.
Henry James used her predicament as a cauldron in his 1880 novel, Washington Square, which was transformed into The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1947.
The era is a sweet spot for veteran director Bain Boehlke and the Jungle Theater. Their handsome creation embraces stark honesty over easy-to-digest flash. Much of this comes down to Kate Guentzel's performance as Catherine. Her character charts a difficult and decidedly unromantic path through the play, and Guetznel makes us feel every step.
The Heiress is an old-fashioned piece through and through — there is no ironic detachment, no fancy playing with structure, no winking through the fourth wall.
It's the middle of the 19th century, and Catherine lives a mostly isolated life. Her father (Jeffrey Hatcher) is a hard man, eternally disappointed by his daughter's nature and worried that she will repel any man with her foolish ways.
That man comes in the form of Morris Townsend (John Catron, Guentzel's real-life husband), a handsome rogue who brings free-living charms into the calcified Sloper home. He arrives with stories of tramping across Europe, thrilling Catherine.
Dr. Sloper isn't so enamored. He can't believe anyone would be interested in his daughter without having one eye on her fortune. Morris has already burned his way through one inheritance. Catherine is due a considerable one herself. Even the unsuspicious might see Morris as on the hunt for treasure.
This isn't a pat tale of true love's triumph. Instead, Catherine embarks on a harder journey.
Guentzel, whose credits include the Jungle's terrifying production of The Birthday Party and the title character in My Antonia, reconstructs Catherine from a gawky woman in the first flowers of romance to a cold soul who has completely abandoned love.
Catron plays Morris close enough to the vest that we're never quite sure if he's genuine or a cad. Hatcher, a prolific playwright, creates a hard and uncompromising Dr. Sloper. They are joined by the always-excellent Wendy Lehr, who provides comic relief as Aunt Penniman, whose views of romance don't reconcile with reality.
Boehlke thrives in plays like this. It shows through strong and confident direction. At times, the pace seems too quick, leaving few moments to breathe. Yet it settles by the second act, allowing the company to dig deep into rich material — and Guentzel a chance to showcase why she's a performer always worth watching.
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