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A marriage of money or love in ‘The Heiress’

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Flipping the famous adage from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice on its head, the play “The Heiress” instead asks how a single woman in possession of a great fortune might find a suitable husband. The quest for love of heroine and heiress Catherine Sloper is complicated by her hyper-critical father, her intrigue-obsessed aunt and her own deeply shy and awkward temperament.

“The Heiress” was adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in the 1940s from author James Henry’s Washington Square. As dramaturg Anna’le Hornak notes in the playbill, the work of fiction was inspired by a bit of gossip. “Actress Fanny Kemble told writer Henry James about her brother, a handsome but selfish young man who got engaged to a girl he described as ‘dull’ and ‘plain’ with a very large fortune.”

The plot of the play closely mirrors the book, though the play’s ending is a little more satisfying for the audience, and at the same, a tad too tidy. Both take place in the 1850s, primarily in a stately house in New York City’s Washington Square. The story plays out in the parlor — a grand staircase and elegant tables, chairs and couches set in the midst of theater-in-the-round at Arena Stage in Washington.

Catherine, played by Laura C. Harris, lives at home with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, and paternal aunt Lavinia Penniman, played by Nancy Robinette. The siblings’ spouses, though deceased, loom large in their memories. Lavinia still wears black, and Austin, played by James Whalen, constantly compares his unsure daughter to his beloved wife, who died giving birth to Catherine.

Catherine’s willingness to please her father is painfully accompanied by his inability to be pleased. The audience vividly sees her natural buoyancy wilt beneath her father’s gaze, as when she is unable to retell a funny story to her father that easily amused her aunt moments before. Her crippled self-esteem leads her to avoid society and to remain silent when she can’t escape company.

Strained affections at Washington Square rise to the surface when the handsome and obsequious Morris Townsend, played by Jonathan David Martin, starts calling on Catherine. Both Slopers quickly learn that Morris is unemployed, lives with family of his widowed sister, and has spent the small fortune he inherited on a trip to Europe. Austin is quickly suspicious of Morris’ motives, finding it difficult to believe his daughter could attract legitimate male interest.

After a few weeks, Morris proposes to Catherine with earnest professions of love. Catherine, naïve and starved for affection, says yes. Lavinia, with over-the top-silliness, humorously encourages the young couple, though she too suspects Morris might be in it for the money. Austin vows not to give Catherine his portion of her inheritance if she marries, but Morris presses on, believing Austin will forgive them eventually.

In a final effort to end the relationship, Austin asks Catherine to accompany him on a six-month to Europe. Morris begs for her loyalty and promises to wait for her. Only the second act will tell Morris’ true character, and most importantly, Catherine’s.

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“The Heiress” at Arena Stage in Washington runs through March 10. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019