LA Review: 'The Heiress'

at the Pasadena Playhouse

Reviewed by Paul Hodgins

April 30, 2012

Photo by Jim Cox
Anyone over 40 remembers that Richard Chamberlain was among America’s most popular midcentury TV leading men, first in the dramatic series “Dr. Kildare,” then in miniseries such as “Shogun” and “The Thorn Birds.” Now 78, Chamberlain demonstrates his enduring powers of magnetism and gravitas in a production of “The Heiress” at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Chamberlain plays Dr. Austin Sloper, a successful Manhattan physician who resides in the city’s most enviable neighborhood, Washington Square, in 1850. Sloper and his daughter, Catherine, have a strained relationship. A stern and inflexible man, he also harbors keen disappointments and unrealistic expectations about his plain, shy daughter, who is the opposite of her late, vivacious mother. Sloper reveals early in the play that his feelings for Catherine are complicated by the tragic circumstances of her birth: His beloved wife died in labor, and Catherine is his only child. When a young man named Morris Townsend takes a shine to Catherine, the doctor immediately suspects his purpose. Catherine has inherited a sizable trust from her mother, and that amount will be tripled when Sloper dies and leaves his estate to her. The doctor has good reason to believe that Townsend is a dishonest fortune hunter, and he refuses to bless the romance.

Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s finely calibrated 1947 script, based on Henry James’ 1881 novel “Washington Square,” keeps us in doubt about everyone’s motives. Is Townsend sincere in his professed love for Catherine? Is the doctor really looking after his daughter’s best interests? Or do his complicated feelings include a wish to keep her unhappy? Will he really disinherit her if she marries Townsend, as she threatens to do?

“The Heiress” can easily devolve into a potboiler costume drama in the wrong hands, but director Dámaso Rodriguez shows admirable restraint with pacing and blocking, and the actors keep their emotional dynamics largely within the confines of 19th-century New York society. Chamberlain wrestled with a few bobbled lines on opening night, but that didn’t undermine the actor’s intensity or studied subtlety. His Austin is a troubled soul who covers his sorrow and disappointment in a martinet’s starchy persona. It’s a finely detailed and mesmerizing performance, with a convincing mix of cerebral and visceral elements imbuing line delivery and body language.

Daytime TV star Heather Tom counterbalances Chamberlain effectively as Catherine. Watching this sweet-natured, fragile character gradually assume the calculating cold-heartedness of her father is central to the success of the script, and Tom spins out that crucial arc incrementally and brilliantly. As Townsend, Steve Coombs needs more ambiguity, overplaying his hand in the first act by making his character’s confidence and smooth manners seem too unctuous and shallow.

John Iacovelli’s set, the Draper drawing room, is spectacular in its realism, right down to the flickering gas lamps. The well-appointed production is marred only by the music: Doug Newell’s sound design is unsophisticated and anachronistic. Harpsichords were scrap lumber by 1850.

Presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. April 29–May 20. Tue.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (626) 356-7529 or Casting by Michael Donovan.

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