The Heiress was written by husband and wife playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1947, based on Henry James' late 19th Century novel Washington Square. The title refers to a young woman named Catherine who lives with her father Dr. Sloper in a posh house on Washington Square Park in 1850s NYC. Catherine's mother died in childbirth, and like Tyrion Lannister, her father blames her for her mother's death. He continually compares Catherine to her mother and finds her lacking. According to him, Catherine is plain, boring, and possesses no charm or grace. But who could possibly live up to the ghostly image of the perfect woman that he has created in his head? Despite this attitude, or perhaps because of it, Catherine loves her father desperately and would do anything to please him. When Catherine is courted by a handsome young gentleman, Dr. Sloper believes that he only wants her for her money, because who could love such a woman as Catherine? So begins Catherine's struggle between pleasing her father and committing to this man that she loves and she believes loves her. Like Tyrion, Catherine eventually gets her revenge on her father, although with much more subtle tactics than a cross-bow. She finally realizes her own power, and will not let the desires or decisions of either man control her life.
|Catherine at her needlepoint with her aunt looking on disapprovingly
(Katie Guentzel and Wendy Lehr, photo by Michal Daniel)
To play the title role, Kate Guentzel reigns in her usual effervescent charm and transforms into this plain and timid woman, who blossoms with love, grows through pain, and shows her strength at the end through subtle changes in voice and demeanor. One of my favorite playwrights, Jeffrey Hatcher, makes a rare onstage appearance as Catherine's stern and pragmatic father and proves he's just as good on this side of the stage. The incomparable Wendy Lehr plays Catherine's fluttery aunt who so desperately wants her to marry Morris, regardless of his true intentions. Kate's real-life husband John Catron plays Catherine's suitor Morris, and is so delightfully and falsely charming that one wonders how awkward that ride home is every night. The rest of the cast fill their roles well, even if only onstage for a short time, including Valarie Falken as the family's ever-present Irish-accented maid.
The Heiress is a remarkably feminist piece for a play written in the 1940s based on a book from the 19th Century. While Catherine might not have a happily-ever-after ending, at least it's on her own terms. The Heiress continues at the Jungle Theater through August 10.
This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.