‘The Heiress’ offers Love, Loss, and Spirit at Arena Stage

The Heiress is a classic play, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square. It’s not the type of play we’ve typically seen from Arena Stage lately, so even its melodrama is refreshing, while still offering a strong message to modern audiences.  Seema Sueko directs an all woman creative team that brings this adaptation to life — all taking place within the confines of a 1850s era sitting room.

Painfully shy and apparently not much to look at, Catherine Sloper (Laura C. Harris) doesn’t often seek out social company.  She’s not a recluse: she merely doesn’t have the confidence to interact.  And it doesn’t help that she knows her Father, Dr. Austin Sloper (James Whalen) blames her for her Mother’s death in childbirth.  Harris plays the timidity strongly — almost to the point where audiences fear Catherine’s character may be on the edge of breakdown.

Despite the rarity of her social situation, she finds herself courted by the dapper — but poor — Morris Townsend.  She can hardly believe her luck.  But is it, as her Father believes, only to get his hands on her inheritance?  Could no one love her?  Does her Father even love her? She is crushed when it appears her Father may be right.  Morris jilts her unceremoniously, and she refuses to reconcile with her Father, even when he becomes mortally ill.

Years later, a rich single woman living alone in her late Father’s house, Morris comes back to call, with convincing stories of his reasons for leaving her and her love behind.  And it seems Catherine is ready to take up with him again.  Until the audience finds out she has a stronger resolve — and holds more of a grudge — than anyone believed.

A tragic love story, The Heiress is ultimately the story of a woman struggling to define herself through others.  But while she longs for love, of course, she also longs to be an individual — and wants to be loved for her thoughts, needs and desires, and maybe because someone thinks she herself is pretty… not because of her pretty bank account.

In the end, Catherine freely makes her own choice, unburdened by anyone else’s opinion or judgements.  She isn’t to be pitied.  She has strength, courage, and conviction enough to spare.

The Heiress plays at Arena Stage through March 10.  Tickets are $41 – 95, available here.

*Images credit C. Stanley Photography

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