It's not so much a curtsey as it is a wilt, this thing Jessica Chastain does in the company of strangers — a wallflower struggling to blossom and falling painfully shy of the mark. She is The Heiress, freshly arrived (Nov. 1) at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Chastain, a Hollywood Cinderella stretching herself to an awesome stage challenge, is gamely going for broke in her Broadway debut, following four other formidable ladies down The Great White Way (Wendy Hiller, Margaret Phillips, Jane Alexander and the Tony-winning Cherry Jones) in the role of Catherine Sloper of 16 Washington Square, a part consisting almost entirely of primal cries of the heart.
The late mistress of the manor there, who died giving birth to Catherine, pervades the place where Catherine grew up, unloved, embroidering her way into premature spinsterhood. Her father, a prominent physician in New York of the mid-1800s, privately holds her responsible for his wife's death but disguises that with an overly protective, even oppressive sense of "love." This — and the threat of disinheritance — keep suitors at arm's length till one dazzled and determined worthy, Morris Townsend, slips through the ranks in two weeks' time and extracts a promise of marriage moments after the two agree to go on a first-name basis. Phew!
All this, with its Oedipal overlap and sexual starvation, would have made a suitable case for treatment for psychologist William James at the time. Instead, his brother Henry got his 1880 novel out of it, "Washington Square," and, posthumously, that became his one commercial success when Ruth and Augustus Goetz carved a classic play out of it. They used the Henry James title when they tried it out in Boston, with a happy ending that had been forced on them by their producer, and it flopped profoundly. Returning to the drawing board, they retitled the piece The Heiress and sharpened the focus on a rich daughter denied love until money becomes an issue.
Moisés Kaufman said he stepped up to the plate to direct The Heiress because he's "a huge fan of Henry James. I've devoured all his novels. I think he's one of those people who profoundly understood human psychology. He really got so much so right so early on. Often what happens is that you can have a great novel, but how often is the translation from the novel to the play a failure? Those attempts fail because the novel, by its form, allows you to spend a lot of the time in the minutia of life. The stage doesn't deal with that. The stage deals with big characters and big emotions — but here they manage, because the characters are so well observed, they manage to be very stage-worthy characters. I think the Goetzes just did a great job at understanding everything that was theatrical both in terms of great characters and great dramatic events. Although there are times where the adaptation is not faithful to the story of the novel, it is faithful to the spirit of the novel. The emotions dissipate over the novel, but they're more concentrated and better constructed in the play. And how often can you say that? From the book to the play — it's very rare."
"For me, with my passion for Henry James, this production was the most Jamesian of all the productions I've seen — like, it's part Heiress and part 'Turn of the Screw.' I really wanted to bring out the dark Henry James part of it. And what was terrific about these actors is that they, too, fell in love with Henry James and they, too, were curious about the literary birthplace of the play. I took the entire cast to The Merchant House because I wanted them to have the experience of being there."
The historic Merchant House on East 4th Street also inspired the scenic design of Derek McLane — up to a point. "The walls of The Merchant House were all white, and I went with the image of tulle leather for the walls. The other thing that's interesting about this play is, not only is the house grand, it's also austere. Dr. Sloper has a very austere personality — he's a severe guy — and so it's an interesting combination of grandeur and austerity at the same time. Trying to create that balance is an important part of the job."
McLane's next designing project is a total secret — The Academy Awards show on Feb. 24, 2013. "I can't tell you about it," he said, "or they'd kill me — or I'd have to kill you."
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