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Among acting challenges, making oneself beautiful or ugly must rank high. Charisma is that subjective interplay between internal hopes and fears and external stimuli and conventions: How we see ourselves is how we are seen, and vice versa.
Still, outside of cheating with makeup, how do you ensure your character is perceived as homely—as Catherine Sloper is supposed to be? The only child of wealthy, prickly and judgmental Dr. Austin Sloper, Catherine is described in Washington Square (1880) by her creator Henry James as “not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance.” James later adds that she was “affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth.”
In the hands of adaptors Ruth and Augustus Goetz, this sweet but not very thrilling creature is our heroine, going on a romantic progress from awkward colt to enraptured lover and, finally, heart-hardened survivor. Catherine is the perfect role for a dynamic, emotionally raw performer, but not one who’s notably sexy. Cherry Jones was a sensation in the 1995 Lincoln Center Theater revival of The Heiress. Now, the latest Broadway version has a glamorous movie star in the lead.
To some, casting Jessica Chastain as Catherine may seem a stretch. The film actor (fiercely luminous in The Help and The Tree of Life) has large, expressive eyes, full lips and camera-friendly cheekbones. At the risk of reinforcing socially constructed notions of beauty, you have to ask: Can technique trump genetics?
It can. Chastain makes for a wholly plausible and fascinating Catherine. It doesn’t matter if the character has good looks; isolation, vulnerability and a lifetime of being condescended to by a disappointed, unloving father have twisted her into a skittish, emotionally arrested clod. Chastain makes Catherine’s visceral discomfort at social occasions both humorous and painful. Her pathetic, open features, framed by an unflattering frizz of hair, suggest a tomboyish woman who never learned to control her body or reactions. When the dapper, smooth-tongued Morris Townsend (Stevens) comes a-courting, the poor girl looks as if she’s about to jump out of her skin—or jump all over him.
Somewhat similar to the current, lucid revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this production shows a cast and crew taking well-worn material seriously and digging deep. These aren’t stock characters in a 1947 nostalgic weepie; they are flesh-and-blood people with complex inner lives. David Strathairn imbues Dr. Sloper with the right amount of gloom and wit, not shying away from the character’s cruelty, but also showing how the man has spent his life in mourning (his wife died giving birth to Catherine). Fortune hunter Morris is no callow dandy; Stevens’s bright-eyed intelligence and boyish ardor make Morris’s hunger for the good life endearing and idealistic, not simply greedy. And Judith Ivey’s giddy, romance-adoring aunt Lavinia provides comic relief as well as an object lesson in the desolation of the loveless life.
Director Moisés Kaufman confidently, sensitively steers his splendid cast around Derek McLane’s grand townhouse set with painterly aplomb. A tale of lost innocence and the wages of experience, The Heiress will probably make you cry. But even through tears, you cannot fail to discern its astonishing, forlorn beauty.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote