Old-fashioned Heiress

For its final Large Stage show of the season, the Alley has decided to go traditional in a big way, reviving with almost academic faithfulness a play written in the 1940s that's based on a novel published in the 1880s. And though more than a century has passed since the original work was created, and nearly a half-century since the adaptation debuted on Broadway, The Heiress still feels current. Good art and good productions are interesting that way. They don't get old so much as they age graciously.

The Heiress, which premiered on Broadway in 1947, was adapted from Henry James' 1881 short novel Washington Square by the team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz. And though the complexity of James' novels have sometimes made it hard to fit them into the confines of a play, the Goetzes were able to be both true to their source and true to the stage in a way that's rarely been matched. Anyone seeking proof of that fact has only to look to last year's Broadway revival, which won a Tony. Or they can go to the Alley for the evidence that's playing right now.

The Heiress takes place among the trappings of 19th-century New York's high society, a common Jamesian setting. By being faithful to even the detailed stage directions in the Goetzes' original script, the Alley has made a solid piece of theater that reflects on a time when social status and personal fortune determined an individual's fate even more than they do now.

The story centers on Catherine Sloper, a shy but charming young woman whose father, Dr. Sloper, still blames her for her mother's death in childbirth. Dr. Sloper is eternally measuring his daughter against his dead wife, and coming up dissatisfied. In Catherine, the Goetzes captured a true Jamesian heroine, one who is unable to express things as elegantly as she feels them, and is often clumsy in both conversation and carriage.

The Heiress, set in the Victorian parlor of the Slopers' stately home, takes place over two years. The focus of the parlor, that room where gentlemen smoke and ladies play cards, is a grand staircase on which Catherine first appears in preparation for a party she and her father will host. Seldom in a play do we have the opportunity to see a dress like the one Catherine arrives in -- it is impossibly red and drives everything else in the room into the background. But as Catherine, Shelley Williams is true to her character, and she makes it clear that she's not wearing the dress; the dress is quite clearly wearing her. Catherine's vulnerability is pinned down perfectly in this first moment as she stands trapped in yards of fabric.

Despite their rigidity, 19th-century American social codes provided the upper class at least the opportunity to pursue romantic love, and it is love that underlies most of what happens in The Heiress. Because her father shows little interest in her, aside from noting the things that she cannot do (play an instrument, sing or make pleasant conversation), Catherine is always anxious to please. It comes as a shock to her that anyone should find her lovely. This is what launches the action: Catherine's belief that for her to love someone is what's needed to have that love returned.

As the part preparations continue, there's much discussion, initiated primarily by Catherine's flirtatious Aunt Lavinia (Bettye Fitzpatrick), about Catherine's meeting an eligible young man. And there is, of course, an eligible young man at the Slopers' gathering: Morris (John Feltch). Handsome, intelligent and gentle, Morris plays the role of suitor admirably, and Catherine falls for him. But while Catherine is taken by Morris, the audience isn't, not quite. The problem is that Feltch never gives Morris more than one dimension, that of an ill-intentioned if sweet-talking young man. Never for an instant do we believe that he's after anything other than the Sloper fortune, especially given how beautifully he speaks when he is talking of Dr. Sloper's Venetian crystal or his Cuban cigars. It would have been better had Feltch thrown a little ambiguity into his characterization, if he'd left the audience unsure whether money is all that he's after.

Still, if Feltch's Morris isn't as compelling as he should be, his character still sparks the production's most powerful acting, which comes in two confrontations between Catherine and her father over her suitor. In these moments Dr. Sloper has the power to bless his daughter's engagement, but instead chooses to destroy her chance for happiness (albeit a Jamesian not-so-perfect happiness). It's in these two scenes, set six months apart, that we see Williams change Catherine from an insecure girl to a woman of independent means and power. Like a cloud covering the sun, Williams gives Catherine the chance to leap from the socially programmed response of "Yes, Father" to a woman who welcomes her disinheritance. As Dr. Sloper, Tom Lacy is admirably staunch, and so evenhanded in his distaste for Catherine that, despite his being a villain in the piece, the audience is moved to pity him, a doctor who can't love, much less care about his own offspring beyond her bank account.

The play is carried on the strength of Williams' portrayal of Catherine, especially in the moments when she believes that Morris loves her -- when she must stop herself from trembling with the enormity of such a thing -- and in that horrible moment where, after she's told Morris that if they marry she'll lose her inheritance, everything she believes to be true crashes around her. Catherine's dilemma is certainly timeless: she finds she has been betrayed by everyone she trusted and, more important, by everyone she loved. Even Aunt Lavinia gently reprimands her by wishing Catherine had the coquettish skill to have handled Morris.

As the play's title suggests, there is little that Catherine can call her own. In the end, it seems, it is her money that provides her the opportunity for love, and her money that precludes her from knowing that love. In terms of production values, the enduring message of the Alley's show is that money may engender more money, but it's less successful at engendering affection.

Left with more than a bit to chew on, the audience will have to decide for itself whether Catherine has truly attained "serenity," as Morris describes it, due to her peaceful life and her awakening, or if she's instead become more efficiently cold and cruel than her father. Though the Alley production has some problems -- sometimes clumsy exposition, a slow pace, occasionally obvious dialogue -- it is easy to forgive the discomforts this faithful recreation every now and again puts us through when there's an actress of Williams' caliber to pull us along, and when there's the layered psychology of a Jamesian plot from which to draw.

The Heiress plays through June 1 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue,228-8421.

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Megan Halverson