Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"The Heiress" at Arena Stage

I have a rocky relationship with Henry James. I too had an interest in Freudian theories and so went into "Turn of the Screw" in high school so excited. And well, great premise, he and I will continue to disagree about some of the execution. (Also, yeah, I love Jennifer Crusie's Maybe This Time although I think that one has a different problem in the execution. I love it, but we can email if you have questions about concerns).
"The Heiress" is a different story and yet there are echoes. It is based on James' short story "Washington Square".  James' work is often described as feminist in that it is often very interested in bringing to light how the times and circumstances suppress women. 
In "The Heiress" Catherine is painfully shy and well generally average in the ways that matter on the marriage mart except that she has money, and should come into more as the titular heiress to her father. So when her very bubbly, very pretty cousin brings along her fiance's friend to a family visit, Marcus, is taken with her. Or her house. Or both. (Kudos to the acting and direction here, Marcus is obviously stricken by the sight of Catherine, a thing one wonders about later.)
He visits frequently and, in ways that those trained to recognize grooming suggests that they should love each other forever even if someone, anyone, were to speak ill of them. 
Catherine's widowed aunt supports the relationship, being all for love or companionship. Catherine's father is less certain. Catherine has never been quite as - well - anything as her mother was so he leaps to Marcus being a gold digger quickly. 
James' spark in this story was what if a woman realized her father didn't really love her. How might that affect the choices she made, her swiftness, her eagerness to fall in love. I am not enough of a student to tell you how unique a plot line this was in the 1800's but it is the kind of thing that is fairly familiar now. 
I hesitate to talk spoilers since I always like to go in cold, but if you want to see Catherine realize she is being taken in, and that very few people in her life - for different reasons - have her happiness in mind, you will.  If you want to see much more than that, you will not.  
This version is done in the round. In the round is tough to do in talkie plays, folks pop up like they are nervous. In the case of this play everyone is nervous or anxious most of the play so it worked. The direction allowed for the characters in the party scenes to continue chatting quietly amongst themselves in moments which always seems a bit more natural. I often end up feeling terribly sad for the servant characters in these things who are always running back and forth, dealing with shifting character needs, although I know it adds to the realism and allows for less set management between scenes. 
The set had windows that descended before the show and pulled up out of the way during the action which I found a nice touch. 
The cast was good. It was especially nice to see Lorene Chesley again from "Smart People".