The Heiress at the Jungle Theater

Kate Guentzel and Wendy Lehr in The Heiress. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Kate Guentzel and Wendy Lehr in The Heiress. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Money. It corrupts, perverts and, ultimately, kills. Can love survive money? The Heiress (at the Jungle Theater, through August 10) rather disturbingly concludes that it cannot. Thank God I don’t have any.

But The Heiress (written 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on a Henry James novella) isn’t simply a shrill (and dismisable) anti-upper class screed. It plays, very effectively, on our own ambivalence about wealth: we want the comfort that money buys but at the same time we like to think that we are, somehow, above the pecuniary fray. Pure humanity will always shine through. Won’t it? Selfless love overcomes everything. Doesn’t it? The Heiress will make you wonder.

Dr. Sloper’s pristine, dustless, crystalline house on New York’s Washington Square seems lovely – and, oh, so charming. But in fact, it swirls and seethes with the corrosive influence of money. Sloper’s daughter, Catherine, has fallen heedlessly in love with the handsome and captivating, but penniless, Morris Townsend. Dr. Sloper minces no words. Morris, he tells her, a vile gold-digger. He’s only after her “irresistable” wealth. No, exclaims Catherine, he genuinely loves me. Morris leaves her waiting for a midnight carriage that never comes as he hightails it to the gold fields in California. Two years later he’s back, explaining that he “jilted” her because he didn’t want to destroy her relationship with her father. He wants to pick up where they left off. Perhaps you know how the play ends (the ending is famous), but if you don’t I’m not going to reveal it here. Know that it thrills.

Morris is a difficult role, and John Catron threads the needle beautifully. Catron’s Morris is, he admits, not terribly intelligent, but his other qualities more than make up for this: he’s good-looking, sweet, with a winning if often goofy grin. Earnest. And he loves Catherine. Or does he? Does he just want her money? I went back and forth on this, just as Catron and the Goetzes intended. Indecisiveness about this is the play’s energy-center and Catron animates it perfectly.

And now I get to wax rhapsodic about Kate Guentzel as Catherine. Wow. Guentzel’s Catherine boils, swirls and churns, her eyes twisting and swiveling, her inner fire always threatening to explode. The other characters don’t quite know what to make of her. They try to dismiss her as shy and horrifically awkward – “Catherine, dear, why don’t you sit?” – but they can’t quite. Dr. Sloper mocks her, saying with fierce irony, “She has grace, beauty, wit,” and I wanted to jump up and shout, “Yes! She does! Can’t you see it?” Well, Morris sees it, and thank the Lord for that. If Catron provides the animating energy, Guentzel gives us breathless and wild passion. The scene in which Catherine awaits Morris’s never-to-come carriage amazes. I still get goose-flesh thinking about it. What a pleasure to see Guentzel playing a role worthy of her considerable talent.

As Austin Sloper, Jeffrey Hatcher (an accomplished playwright who acts only occasionally) more than holds his own. He brilliantly renders Sloper’s monetary hatred of Morris. I wish he more vividly played Sloper’s perverted (a strong but, imo, appropriate word) desire to keep Catherine dependent and childish.  The great Wendy Lehr does wonders with the role of the cloistered (and enabling) Aunt Penniman.

Finally, I must mention Charity Jones as Mrs. Montgomery. Her scene is short but crucial. Mrs. Montgomery offers a calm antidote to the twisted caustic money paranoia running rampant in the Sloper house. Jones plays the role with poised power. I was sorry to see her go.

The Heiress director Bain Boehlke has, as always, elicited outstanding performances from his cast. Boehlke designs as well, with able assists from Bill Healey, the highly talented Amelia Cheever, et al. If I have a criticism of The Heiress it’s that the Sloper house is too pretty. I would like to have seen some threadbareness, a layer of desperate dust. But that’s me.

The Heiress is a creaky play, a drawing room drama, filled with long expositional scenes, go-nowhere characters. But it packs real punch.

Recommended.

Next up at the Jungle: a remounting of the delicious Irma Vep, opening Aug 29).

For more info about John Olive, please check out his website.

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