Despite being based on a novel (Henry James' Washington Square) that was written approximately 100 years ago, Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress, now being given a gorgeous and mostly well-acted production by Damaso Rodriguez at the Pasadena Playhouse, remains universal and timeless.
Anyone who's felt the sting of being stood up or haunted with the realization that love may never arrive will ache for title character, Catherine Sloper (Daytime Emmy Award winner Heather Tom), a plain, lonely woman who is under the nail of her domineering and withholding father (Richard Chamberlain).
Taking on the complex and daunting role of Catherine -- which has been so memorably played over the years by such actresses as Olivia De Havilland and Cherry Jones -- Tom is simply mesmerizing. With her pale complexion and grotesque eyebrows, she's physically drab, but there's a lust for life in those eyes that any intelligent person would easily see.
Indeed, the audience knows -- even if she doesn't -- that Catherine warrants love and acceptance, even if her current paramour, Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) has impure intentions. Tom's breakdown in act two is heartbreaking and when she finally gets her voice, standing up to those who took her for granted, it's a luminous moment.
Unfortunately, Chamberlain feels almost too warm to be believable as the coldhearted Dr. Sloper. He walks with a joviality that seems out character, and while Dr. Sloper's words must cut through Catherine like a sharp razor, Chamberlain's speech seems tenuous. The essential tension of the play is dispelled since it feels like an uneven fight.
Coombs brings the right amount of greasy charm to Townsend, who proves ultimately incapable of hiding his true greed. Jill Van Velzer, as Morris' sister, broadcasts on her face her unconditional love for her brother, along with the knowledge that he's not a decent person. Best of all, Julia Duffy is perfect as Aunt Lavinia, a woman who acts as Catherine's confidant, but truly thinks little of her niece. Duffy uses her natural bubbliness as a weapon.
The production also benefits from an elegant drawing-room set by John Iacovelli and the period-appropriate dresses by Leah Piehl. Tom wears a fiery red dress in the beginning of the show, but still looks dowdy, and even when she wears frilly Paris originals later on, Catherine still cannot carry herself with the dignity she deserves.
© 2012 Jonas Schwartz
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