‘The Heiress’ at Arena Stage

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Laura C. Harris and Jonathan David Martin. Photo by C. Stanley Photography. Courtesy Arena Stage.

In 2019, the Victorians are proving that they still have much to teach us, especially about affairs of the heart.

In “The Heiress,” at Arena Stage through March 10, Catherine Sloper, the titular character, is faced with the most timeless of questions: Does he love me or my money?

Commentators are describing this play in feminist terms: the plain and awkward Catherine must “find her voice” to triumph over the indignities of her cruel father and faithless beau, placing the play neatly in the #MeToo zeitgeist.

But, although Catherine earns her heroine creds by the play’s end, this work for me is a much deeper look at class and society.

The collision between the social queen bees and the wannabes is a theme that runs through the works of Henry James, whose 1880 novella “Washington Square” is the basis of “The Heiress,” adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1947. Arena’s production is directed by Deputy Artistic Director Seema Sueko.

A hallmark of James is his creation of stories involving women imprisoned by their social position — not necessarily because they are female, but because they are rich. Perhaps the most famous of his heroines is Isabel Archer, who finds herself caught in a web of deceit in “The Portrait of a Lady,” or Daisy Miller, an American expatriate in Italy who flouts the conventions of the European aristocracy.

“The Heiress” has been portrayed by Olivia de Havilland on the silver screen and by Jessica Chastain on Broadway, as recently as 2012. Arena Stage’s lead actress is Laura C. Harris, who does the character’s heritage ample justice.

Catherine lives with her physician father and busybody aunt. As a single woman with a fortune, she spends her time knitting, doing light charity work and, since she suffers from a crippling shyness, trying to avoid social situations.

Her deceased mother casts a long shadow; her father makes frequent references to her mother’s grace and social ease. The nagging question — Why can’t you be more like her? — is at the root of much of Catherine’s anxiety.

Along comes Morris Townsend, played convincingly by Jonathan David Martin, a charming and handsome man-about-town. Dr. Sloper’s suspicions are piqued when he discovers Townsend’s dubious finances. The suspicion reaches a fevered pitch when Townsend suddenly proposes marriage, knowing full well the extent of the Sloper estate.

Arena’s superb circular staging is especially useful here, bringing the audience closer to the family drama. Fans of Victorian style will appreciate the sumptuous costumes and set décor.

In the end, Catherine makes a series of choices, and emerges from her cocoon. Her reasons and their consequences leave the viewer riddled with ambiguity.

This is a play that will stay with you for a long time.

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