In TheatreVirginia's "The Heiress," two good performances stands out like a jewel against a flat, dull background
In its publicity materials, TheatreVirginia describes the plot of "The Heiress" as a "game of psychological warfare" between a father and a daughter. If that description has you expecting arguments and outbursts, be forewarned. "The Heiress," adapted from Henry James' 1881 novel "Washington Square," features a cold war where the battles are few and the soldiers seem sedated. The pleasures to be found in this overlong, workmanlike production are not in any fiery conflicts (because the show has none), nor are they in the quietly intense conflicts that eventually do erupt. Instead, a couple of performances stand up and demand attention while the rest of the show lies flat.
The first is the performance of Anna Stone. As Catherine Sloper, daughter of the dispassionately wicked Dr. Austin Sloper (George Black), Stone is a marvel of emotional honesty onstage. At the play's beginning, Catherine can barely speak in social situations, and Stone conveys her paralyzing shyness clearly without stooping to caricature. The Sloper household is shaken when the handsome and charming Morris Townsend (Ted Deasy) courts the plain and graceless Catherine, eventually proposing to her. Dr. Sloper pegs Morris as a scoundrel, obviously after Catherine's hefty inheritance.
In the conflict that ensues, Dr. Sloper shows that he has nothing but contempt for his own daughter. Realization of this fact causes Catherine to break down, a process that Stone also captures with bracing clarity. The only possibility for her redemption is the steadfast love of her fiancé or is it? Thanks to Deasy's skillful performance, it is never clear whether Morris is the sincere and ardent suitor he proclaims to be or a materialistic slimeball in a nice suit.
Second-guessing Morris' real intentions may keep some folks enthralled with this nearly three-hour drama, but I lost interest well before the final curtain. In addition to portraying Dr. Sloper, Black directed this show (along with Associate Director Jodie Lynne McClintock) and refuses to imbue the proceedings with significant vigor. The play is set in New York circa 1850, so it's already full of overdressed characters being way too polite. By developing few comic distractions and by allowing the passions that bubble underneath the veneer of this story to stay muted, Black lets the power of James' novel dissipate into flaccidity.
As an actor, Black fares a little better: His straightforward delivery makes Dr. Sloper a believable and even amiable creep. It's only late in the show, when some emotional heavy lifting is required, that Black falls short. Celia Howard does an adequate job of playing the remaining major character, Catherine's Aunt Lavinia, who tries to get and then keep the young lovers together. Howard doesn't quite have the presence, however, to make Lavinia more than an occasionally amusing distraction.
Lending authenticity to the production are the wonderful period costumes by designer David Crank. A dress Catherine wears after returning from France is a particular knockout. But killer costumes and two smashing performances are the only volatile and ultimately the most satisfying aspects of this "psychological
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