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Theater Review (LA): The Heiress at the Pasadena Playhouse

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Adapted in 1947 by playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz from Henry James’ 1881 novel, Washington Square, The Heiress tells the story of a plain, withdrawn young woman who lives under the domineering rule of her physician father in socially-conscious mid-nineteenth century New York. Now, 62 years after its original production at the Playhouse, the Tony- and Academy Award-winner returns in a sumptuous production with an appealing cast.

Catherine Sloper (Heather Tom) would rather stay home and stitch samplers than attend social events with people her age, causing no end of consternation for her physician father (Richard Chamberlain) who is highly disappointed in her behavior and lack of grace. Catherine has accepted her lot in life, but Sloper still hopes to coax her out of her shell and into the arms of proper society.

When visiting relatives bring the attractive, smooth-talking Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) into their home, Catherine is instantly smitten. To her surprise, Townshend professes an attraction to her as well, and soon they’re planning a wedding. Dr. Sloper refuses to grant his permission, however, convinced that the penniless Townsend is a fortune-hunter who is only after Catherine’s inheritance. Meanwhile, Sloper’s widowed sister, Lavinia (Julia Duffy), attempts to intervene, recognizing that this may be Catherine’s only chance at true happiness.

Chamberlain has a field day with Sloper, biting off his lines and playing the doctor with a dry wit even as he’s being horribly cruel to his daughter. Duffy is a delight as the meddlesome aunt whose interest in Catherine’s happiness barely conceals a perverse delight in manipulating others, and Coombs is convincing as the unctuous lothario who recognizes a kindred spirit in Lavinia.

Tom is a revelation in the key role of Catherine, whose transformation from socially inept innocent to hard-hearted lady of the house is executed with great skill.

Director Dåmaso Rodriguez wisely pumps up the humor in the first act before digging in for the more intense conclusion, bringing a freshness to the material that makes it more appealing to modern audiences.

The production’s technical aspects are excellent. From the moment the curtain opens on John Iacovelli’s jewel box of a set, the audience is transported to another era, aided immensely by Leah Piehl’s attractive costuming. Brian Gale’s lighting design nicely delineates the passage of time and season, and Doug Newell’s aural enhancement is also fine.

The Heiress plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. with a Saturday matinee at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. with a matinee at 2 p.m. at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena. Reservations can be made online or by calling (626) 356-7529.

Photos: Jim Cox

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About Kurt Gardner

Writer, critic and marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.