“The Heiress,” now playing at the Arena Stage Fichandler Stage, is a story that could have sprung from the news of today. Yet the adaptation from Henry James’ novella “Washington Square” is set in the 19th century, before women even had the right to vote.
Blending melodrama with a classic plot, “The Heiress” tells the story of Catherine Sloper (Laura C. Harris), a wealthy young woman with no confidence in her own personality and no moral support from her father, Austin Sloper (James Whalen) a respected and successful physician who has a substantial inheritance for his only child upon his death.
Set in New York City, Catherine is a shy, unassuming young woman who lives with her father and his sister, Lavinia Penniman (Nancy Robinette). Another sister, Elizabeth Almond (Janet Hayashahi) lives nearby and comes calling with her daughter, Marian Almond (Lorene Chesley) and her fiancé Arthur Townshend (Nathan Whitmer).
The visit seems innocent enough as Marian and Arthur announce their engagement. But what puts the play into motion is the visitor, Arthur’s cousin Morris Townshend, just returning from Europe. The vivacious young man attempts to break the socially awkward Catherine out of her shell — and ultimately wins her affection.
But Morris is poor, although enthusiastic about making Catherine his wife, and as the plot ensues, the audience is left questioning his intentions.
“It’s a thriller of the heart,” said Chesley, who plays Marian Almond and is also the only African American in the nine-member cast. “We follow the journey of Catherine Sloper, a shy, plain woman, who is pursued by this poised and passionate, yet poor suitor, Morris Townsend. The audience gets to go on the ride of, does he want her for love or money?”
Her character represents the fulfilled woman, on the brink of her new life with a husband who has passed muster with the family.
“Marian is the sparkle,” Chesley said. “She brings forth important information for the audience to know, and is the juxtaposition of what Catherine is. She is confident, charming and joyous.
“Marian is one of the few characters who actually gets what she wants,” she said. “There is a beautiful freedom in that! She infuses joy and love into a household that is a lot of times barren.”
Beyond the drama that unfolds when Dr. Sloper rejects Morris Townshend’s proposal to marry his daughter, “The Heiress” makes a statement beyond the obvious. It reflects the misery that Catherine has been living with due to the harsh criticism and coldness of her father, who still harbors resentment because his wife died giving birth to his daughter.
It also speaks to finding one’s way without external gratification, which is Catherine’s inevitable fate when she realizes she has no one but herself.
Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, had been anticipating the right time to present “The Heiress,” which was adapted for the stage from James’ novella by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1945. The playwrights took some liberties with the ending, which James had cast Catherine as a dismal spinster. Instead, they endowed the protagonist with an inner strength and resolve that matched the times when women were beginning to find and use their voices.
“Why this play now?” Smith said. “At the core, this is the story of a woman struggling with defining herself through others — a father, a husband. While defining oneself through other people may be a story predominantly told by women, certainly it’s a universal idea that we are not only who our parents or partners want us to be — we are individuals and our thoughts, needs, desires are our own.”
In this era of women still struggling to find an authentic voice, “The Heiress” drives home common truths that we can all relate to, regardless of age, gender or social status.
“We see the alliances formed between family members and what each of them are fighting for,” Chesley said. “We truly see a woman who evolves and finds her own voice during this time period, despite the opinions of her overbearing father, romantic aunt and zealous lover. She has the fortitude and determination to seek what she wants, and during the 1850s, I think that’s incredibly bold.
“I think women and men seeing the show in 2019 should continue to seek their own voices,” she said. “Listen to one another fully, and examine the character and what’s underneath each of your relationships and how you interact with one another on a daily basis. Don’t take any relationships for granted!”
“The Heiress” runs through March 10 at the Fichlander Stage of the Arena Stage Mead Center for American Theater (1101 Sixth Street SW). Post-performance discussions will be held after the March 5, 6 and 7 performances. Go to www.arenastage.org for showtimes and more information.