I’m sad to see this academic year’s theater season come to a close. But this noteworthy stretch of fine productions must stop for the summer. The last compelling item on the list of campus theater productions is The Heiress, and the last performances of the play will be this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in Nichols Theater.
The Heiress is directed by Charlotte MacFarland. The veteran faculty director has been assisted mightily by alum and visiting Scenic Designer J.J. Wickham, whose empire sitting room would have only been practical and rich if the molding didn’t contain hidden eyes. Whenever John Uthoff’s lighting comes down between scenes, the large eyes appear and remind the audience that what seems like drawing room talk is actually action in an intense struggle.
The basic story was taken, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz for this 1947 script, from a Henry James novel, Washington Square. There have been several New York revivals of the play and a William Wyler movie. Basil Rathbone and Wendy Hiller were in the original stage production. Jessica Chastain was in last year’s Broadway revival. Folks who have liked theater for a while know the play.
Its story is relatively simple. Wealthy Dr. Sloper (here played by Kyle Myers, a regular in recent K-State productions, who is especially effective here) honors the memory of his wife, who died years ago in childbirth, giving him a daughter, Catherine. Catherine (Elise Poehling, heroine of this year’s Music Man) has grown up painfully shy. Though she has a good character, she is a disappointment to her father, and one can see why.
Also living in the house is one of the doctor’s two sisters, romantic Lavinia (Kelsey Coffroth). Catherine’s personality is contrasted to that of her cousin, a conventional young woman whose engagement leads to Catherine’s introduction to Morris Townsend (Mathew Ellis).
He loves the house. He obviously delights in luxurious details of life there—the Venetian crystal, the furniture, the cigars. But Townsend is not at all well-off, having spent most of his inheritance on a long trip in Europe.
He quickly recognizes that he can live in high style if he marries Catherine, who has a large income from investments (her mother’s family money) and who will inherit twice again as much when her father dies. Catherine is delighted to be the romantic object of this good-looking young man. When they announce their engagement, the doctor recognizes Townsend as a fortune hunter and takes Catherine away on a six month trip.
On their return, Dr. Sloper tells his daughter what he suspects of Townsend’s motives, that she is too simple in understanding and plain in appearance to herself attract the young man. Catherine is shocked by this estimation of her appeal. She agrees to run off with Townsend, telling him of her break with her father. Disappointed by her reduced financial expectations, her beau misses their appointment for elopement and suddenly leaves town.
Catherine will be changed by her experiences, as we will see in the entertainment’s last scene.
Just about everything goes well in this production, which manages to effectively play off the self-interest of the men in Catherine’s life. The actors with small parts—take Cat Huck playing Townsend’s widowed sister for example—give vital performances. Dana Pinkston’s costumes, particularly for the women, are arrestingly effective. They are right for the time period and the story and reminded me of the wallpaper in the Wolfe House Museum.
And Prof. MacFarland has managed to keep the play’s events moving along at a rate which helps us to see the shape of the story. Like just about every play produced on campus this year, this version of The Heiress made for a memorable evening.