TAUGHT BY MASTERS
William Faulkner might or might not have quipped that Henry James was one of the nicest old ladies he’d ever met. Faulkner definitely did call James both priggish and among the best of novelists, and even if the old-lady line proves spurious, it sounds enough like both of them that one wishes it were true. Regardless, the Southern sensualist could joke affectionately about the Yankee moralist, since Faulkner’s work shows his appreciation of the old-ladyish capacity for reflection, wisdom and occasionally perverse observation. Nobody could write characters like Miss Grierson in “A Rose for Emily” or Granny in The Unvanquished without an abiding love of the ruminating elder female. It’s undeniable that Henry James fits a certain ideal of the web-spinning spinster; sufficiently “bachelor” to have prompted a great deal of speculation, and nosy and stubborn and old-fashioned: no argument. But his gift for motivational study rivaled that of his psychologist brother William, such that today it’s difficult to say which genius offers the more enduring insights into mental anguish. Unfortunately for posterity, many of James’ novels are too long, and much too preciously and densely written, to appeal to readers eager for quick satisfaction. Washington Square, a short novel published in 1880, still falls almost deliberately into this category.
Fortunately for everyone, in 1947, husband and wife playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted that novel’s most melodramatically Freudian elements into a lovely, agonizing little play about how young ladies get to be old maids, called The Heiress. The new Pasadena Playhouse production offers a brilliant corrective to the stuffy revivals of classic works so frequently seen in the Southland. This is how to treat a classic: assemble an A-1 cast and let it play. With this fine, funny take on a venerable drama, director Dámaso Rodriguez proves that tragedy works best in counterpoint.
An arrogant doctor, his cowed daughter, and the young man who comes between them in upper-crust 19th Century New York constitute the basic triangle of this beautifully crafted horror. Austin Sloper (Richard Chamberlain), eminent in business and society, has raised the awkward Catherine (Heather Tom) in the deep shadow of her dead mother, the one passion of his life. Her Aunt Lavinia (Julia Duffy), unreconciled to her widowhood, is eager to see the girl married away from her stifling homelife; she encourages the charming, penniless Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) to court Catherine against Dr Sloper’s wishes. This much is the stuff of a froth one might consume at an airport bar, but mix in the doctor’s unconscious erotic delight in suppressing his daughter’s emergent personality, and you have a complex bouquet; add a dash of sexual longing to Lavinia’s interest in Morris, and a garnish of fortune-hunting to that suitor’s intent, and you have a bracing aperitif to carry you through your journey.
The play works after sixty-odd years for many reasons. It’s dramatically perfect – every plot point is important, and every character is affected by terrible mistakes of accident and purpose – yet it affords shades of interpretation; it gives actors great chewy mouthfuls of opportunity, and still it isn’t talky; it’s long enough to seem worth the price of admission, but, as it is well-handled, it feels much quicker than its running time. And as these excellent actors and this astute director show, it’s not only a smart play but a very witty one.
Just as Shakespeare places a ridiculous speech about drunken fornication before the discovery of Duncan’s murder in Macbeth, the Goetzes write mannered, penetrating domestic banter even as the weight of tragedy gains momentum in The Heiress. When the play doesn’t provide funny little bits of business, the director and the actors do, as when the maid Maria (Elizabeth Tobias) is at first confused by, then slowly comprehends, the devious nature of her instructions. Humor allows an audience to relax, the better to feel the pain of the drama; the chocolate-covered pill has rarely gone down as well as it does here.
Richard Chamberlain’s many prior characterizations of earnest young men will no doubt inform most playgoers’ appreciation of his elegantly monstrous Dr Sloper. This cultivated man, so clear in his assessment of other people and so unaware of his own sinister nature, stands tall and crumbling at the same time, a figure of terror and of pity. Pitching his voice low and keeping his spine erect, Mr Chamberlain nevertheless conveys the misery of his condition. He is not young, and will not outlive his disappointments. He is not an evil man, but he does great harm. He is not sorry. And he will never change. It’s a whole person up there, as complete a character as one is likely to see in a potboiler, the work of an actor who has been getting better for sixty years.
Ms Tom is very nearly as good; her period manner goes in and out, but not enough to distract more than momentarily from her essential rightness for this part. When unnerved as the artless ingenue, she is spectacularly affecting, and her steely resolve once the worm turns is frightening in its implications. Ms Duffy plays the dramatic spectrum with tact and ease, a lightly comic character who reveals a lonely fear at her core. Among the flawless supporting cast, Jill Van Velzer stands out in her single scene as the suitor Morris’ loving yet ambivalent sister, as does Ms Tobias in her tiny but extraordinarily well-played role.
Mr Rodriguez’s direction, so confident as to be invisible, highlights what’s interesting and graceful in the play’s every nuance. He steers actors of disparate backgrounds to act as if they’re all in the same play, which one might take for granted; but to see ten plays in Los Angeles in which film and television actors play with classical stage actors and improvisation-based performers is to appreciate what Mr Rodriguez has done here. He quietly creates moments without slowing or discombobulating the action, designs stage pictures that are natural yet balanced, and even directs the scene changes to flow with the story. One might argue that he allowed Mr Coombs to rush his playing a bit in his final scene, thereby robbing the subsequent climax of its most unambiguously tragic facet; this would be no small criticism, but it also might be a single-performance aberration not to be repeated. It surely would not be cause not to see such a magnificent production. John Iacovelli’s mansion set looks like it weighs ten thousand pounds, especially under Brian Gale’s light; Leah Piehl’s costumes add to this sense of refined gravity, transporting a modern eye to a past vision of our reality. Even as sniffy an old lady as Henry James could not have said much against such solid work.
photos by Jim Cox
The Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena (Los Angeles Theater)
scheduled to end on May 20, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org