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Tucson Weekly Class Conflicts

"The Heiress" is the best piece of serious theatre in a while.

By Margaret Regan

JANUARY 26, 1998:  THE RICH, AS they say, are different from you and me. They have more money, yes, and money complicates relationships. If you're a fabulously wealthy young heiress, for instance, living at a time when marriage is an economic transaction, and women are chips to be traded by men, you'll never know for sure whether a suitor wants you for love or money.

That's the crux of The Heiress, a wholly absorbing drama that's the best piece of serious theatre we've seen in a while from Arizona Theatre Company. Based on the 1881 novella Washington Square by Henry James, master of nuanced explorations of human relationships, the play was written in 1947 and revived in 1995. Its dissection of the marriage marketplace in upper-crust New York in 1855 comes vigorously alive in this co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Part of the credit goes to playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who compressed James' deliciously meandering prose into a smartly compact play crackling with conflict. Even more credit goes to the performers, a fine ensemble cast of nine, but most especially to Anne Torsiglieri as the heiress and Ken Ruta as her father.

Torsiglieri is sublime as Catherine Sloper, the socially inept young woman who's already sliding toward spinsterhood in her early 20s. She blushes when she should chatter, she stands when she should sit and her favorite place during parties at the family home on fashionable Washington Square is the back pantry. Despite her immense wealth--she has the expectation of $30,000 a year, or a million dollars in today's terms--the awkward Catherine has attracted no admirers. It's not hard to see the source of her troubles.

Ruta portrays her father, the eminent doctor Austin Sloper, as a hard-edged, self-satisfied man who has always undervalued his loving daughter. He's raised her from birth to believe that she has neither the beauty nor the wit of her late mother, a woman the doctor has idealized since her death in childbirth. Austin tells himself that he loves the girl, but he almost never addresses her without ironic contempt.

"Make her into a clever woman," he tells his silly sister, Lavinia (Katherine Conklin), a hopelessly romantic poor relation who's been brought in as a companion to Catherine. When Lavinia protests that Catherine is a good girl, Sloper icily replies: "Good for what? You are good for nothing unless you are clever."

Thus when a suitor turns up, in the handsome person of Morris Townsend (Robert Parsons), Sloper immediately assumes that the fellow is a mercenary after Catherine's money. What else could he be, since his daughter has no charms? For Catherine, however, deprived of love for a lifetime, Townsend's attentions are the proverbial rains after the drought. Like a parched plant she blossoms under his flattering words, and she rewards him with her first, fierce love. Torsigliere's portrayal of Catherine is so fetching that we believe she's entirely lovable; as Townsend so gallantly puts it, she's a natural young woman, with none of the silly affectations of society belles.

Still, Townsend's true feelings are the mystery of the play, capably directed by David Wheeler. It's clear that Townsend likes Catherine's money, and likes it very much. When the Slopers are out of the house, he makes himself grandly at home with the doctor's expensive brandy and fine cigars, and even examines the crystal on the mantel, under the conspiring eye of Lavinia. And when the doctor threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries a man he disapproves, Morris' sudden attack of conscience at breaking up the family is more than suspect. If the play has a fault, it's that Morris' part is underwritten. We simply don't see enough of him to make a fair judgment. We know he wants the money, but perhaps he sincerely wants the woman as well.

What makes the play so engrossing is that we're never entirely sure of the truth, and we go back and forth from the father's point of view to the daughter's. Surely the father is right to be suspicious of a man without profession, without ambition, who claims to have fallen in love with his plain daughter in a matter of weeks. On the other hand, why should Townsend's monetary ambitions so unhinge the father? After all, in their time and place, every up-and-coming young man set out to marry a wealthy bride. Sloper himself took care to marry a wife of fortune. And if Catherine's money is going to be an attraction for any man who wants to marry her, why not let her marry one she loves with all her heart? Catherine, whose happiness is the victim of this tug-of-war between two preening men, turns out to have learned a lot about power and revenge from both of them.

The story is a wonderfully ambiguous exploration of the tensions between classes, between genders and even between parents and children as the 19th-century nation rushed pell-mell toward a new marketplace economy. Kate Edmund's handsome set, re-creating a luxurious period drawing room, is an elegant metaphor for the play's conflicts. At first the place seems eminently desirable, the prize that will be either withheld or won. But as the play rolls inevitably toward its tragic conclusion, its walls somehow close in, its fine furnishings become overbearing, its draperies claustrophobic. And the money prize, alas, becomes the money trap.


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