Though Donald Call claims, “Everybody likes Washington Square, even the denigrators of Henry James,” it is only through performance that James’ novel has ever come alive for me—both in William Wyler’s 1949 movie, The Heiress, and now, in a current Broadway revival of Ruth and August Goetz’s play.
Of course, casting Jessica Chastain as Catherine Sloper is a bit like giving Marilyn Monroe the lead in Now, Voyager—it is a part more naturally suited to a Shelley Winters type; mediocre looks and a mediocre wit is not what we would immediately associate with Terrence Malick’s most recent leading lady. Still, Ms. Chastain manages to be transformative. The Heiress somehow overcomes that eye-rolling Hollywood lie where we are meant to suspend our disbelief, to half-heartedly pretend that all these other characters consider this bombshell an ugly duckling. Through a simultaneously off-putting and endearing frenetic shyness, Ms. Chastain embodies Catherine as well as any actor could—and though we all know how it ends, we sit in our seats, quietly pleading for a happier conclusion.
What is most effective about The Heiress is that the central relationship, between Catherine and her father Austin (David Strathairn), is fraught with good intentions. Austin, an exacting man, is never wrong in his judgments—and yet he still cannot make the right choice for his daughter, he fails to see how the opportunistic Morris (Dan Stevens) would ultimately provide a more loving, if disingenuous, household than his own. And Mr. Srathairn is devastating in the part. At the performance I attended, his clinical evaluations of Catherine provoked gasp after gasp from the elder members of the audience. Meanwhile, Ms. Chastain’s transformation from naiveté to father-like coldness is a wonder to see. In the first act, when speaking to and about Morris, she exhales the word Yes with an incredible, life affirming awe; by the end, the same word has been beaten within an inch of its life.
Like many melodramas, The Heiress loses steam after intermission, and at two hours and forty-five minutes, it is rather overlong. Still, for the performances alone, it is entirely worth the price of admission.