Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Everything Old is New Again: “The Heiress” at Pasadena Playhouse
When dealing with a play which some consider a classic, the struggle is always between the production best known – the bellwether for many people, the one they consider “right” – and innovation. This has definitely been true of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s “The Heiress.” Defined for many by Olivia de Havilland’s Oscar-winning film version, it was redefined in the 1990s in Cherry Jones’ Tony-winning portrayal. Though that new view of an established character gave great pause to some purists, it acknowledged the play as a living thing. This is what theater is supposed to do.
The story itself can be tragic or transformative, based on how the title character is played. A shy young woman, the daughter of a doctor, finds that a handsome young man is interested in her despite her father’s low opinion of her charms. Her father sees the young man as a predator, while his widowed sister embraces the romance which appears to be on the horizon. As the conflict between daughter’s hopes and father’s suspicion plays out, truths of their relationship are bared, while the romantic aunt wrings her hands.
In the new production at the Pasadena Playhouse, Heather Tom has chosen to find middle ground between de Havilland’s gentleness and Jones’ underlying rebellion. Her Catherine, plain and hesitant, confronts her own natural practicality along with her wishes for romance. It works. Richard Chamberlain, as Catherine’s father, vibrates with the festering, self-centered bitterness of a man whose own romantic notions smashed against tragedy too soon. Once the gentility is thinned on each of these characters, the chemical reactions are intense and interesting.
Julia Duffy provides balance as the kindly, well-intentioned aunt, while Steve Coombs makes Morris, the dubious young man, handsome and deceptively at ease in a house of wealth. Elizabeth Tobias turns the maid who observes so much of the upheaval into a far more three-dimensional character that one often sees. Indeed, all the rest of the ensemble provides a rounded and interesting backdrop to this taut story.
Director Damaso Rodriguez balances the personalities of his characters well, keeping the story from ever devolving into the maudlin, and allowing some of the more subtle points of the story and characterizations to have just the gentlest underscore. It means everything to audience engagement, as the layers of emotion settle upon them.
And the thing looks just right. John Iacovelli’s upper crust house, with its mixed aura of self-control and wealth, fits the mood of the piece beautifully. The expertly period costumes of Leah Piehl, worn and used as fits the times, transport one back to pre-civil war New York where this particular character dynamic could so easily appear.
“The Heiress” offers one of the greater female parts in American theatrical literature. To see it reinvented over and over, in subtle gradations of character, is to watch the art of the actor and director at its finest. The artistic image of Catherine cannot remain static any more than one of Hamlet can. Each new generation must take something away from the piece. Rodriguez and Tom know that, and it shows.
What: “The Heiress” When: Through May 20, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $29 – $59 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org