Albany Civic Theater Treats “The Heiress” Right
Albany Civic Theater opens the new Fall season of theater in the Capital Region with a superior production of “The Heiress” by Ruth & Augustus Goetz, directed by Evan Jones. There is a great love for creating art in our home. We all want to be loved as who we are and in theater, “the seeing place,” we show ourselves as we dare not…but what if we are not accepted at home? Friday night I had a great surge of love, pride and comfort as a very healthy representation of the Capital Region theater community (onstage, backstage and in the audience) presented this story that screams for love and acceptance in the place that is designated to nurture us.
“The Heiress” is an adaptation of the 1880 Henry James novel “Washington Square” based on a story he was told by the actress Fanny Kemble about a plain woman of means who stands to inherit quite a bit more who attracts the affections of a penniless gentleman. Her father who holds her in poor esteem suspects the worst of the young man and the affection between them. James did not think much of his own novel but it is a powerful and popular story onstage. From its 1947 debut, it has subsequently been revived four times on Broadway and has proven very popular in theaters across the country for over 70 years.
It is a crackerjack story and can thrill with its psychological acuity and drawing room blood sport. Catherine Sloper as superbly played by Heather-Liz Copps can recede in front of your eyes when her father enters the room. Nervously kneading the hem of her jacket, she can get so intimidated by him, she’ll pricelessly destroy a joke that moments earlier had her Aunt Lavinia (the delightful, dithering Susan Dantz making her ACT debut) in stitches. She moves us effortlessly in this role as she cautiously treads in her father’s house to her ecstatic bloom of first-love to her penultimate act. Her sudden kiss with Morris shocked and tickled me and the look on her face at her final exit will haunt me
Rob Weber as her father Dr. Austin Sloper had the audience recoiling at his shocking cold assessment and brutal treatment of his daughter. His self-diagnosis in the second act when he turns his pitiless eye on himself chills nearly all but Catherine. I’m hoping now that the show has opened he can relax and do less in the first act and be that much more effective, his understanding and access to the man’s grief and rage are so palpable they don’t need to be displayed as boldly as now. It comes off as too contemporary.
As the young bounder Morris Townsend, Brian Sheldon walks the fine line between easygoing charm and untrustworthiness with a relaxed spontaneity that makes him great company. He is smooth, earnest and ravenous. I was as excited to see him reenter a scene as Catherine…against my better judgment.
The rest of the cast is of a very high caliber and they all have moments that delight making the evening move swiftly. There were enough warm laughs to fool you into thinking you were not watching the destruction of a poor soul. Exceptional work by Sara Paupini, Teresa Storti, Jimmy Cupp, and Samantha Miorin. Best of all is a scene between Morris’s sister Mrs. Montgomery, Laura Darling and Dr. Sloper. Laura brings an affliction onstage that rivets your attention and as she shifted in her chair, her eyes darting, I felt an identifying comprehension of her discomfort. She’s poor.
The set by Adam Coons and John Sutton is very attractive with a neat cutaway front hall far upstage that gives exits to the kitchen, the street and most importantly for the climax, upstairs. The costumes by Beth Ruman are of very high quality and look very rich, attractive and period-appropriate. Nicolas Nealon has a great lighting design and I especially liked his new gaslight instruments (which provided an otherworldly exit for Dr. Sloper and his wife) and the handling of the climax. Barry Streifert pushes the sound design most enjoyably right up to the edge of melodrama. Laura Graver has done great work with the hair and make-up, Catherine’s Act I hair alone said so much about her condition. Special mention should also be made of the fun fleetness of stage manager Jess Hoffman who attacked the scene changes in the gaslight like a cat.
Director Evan Jones has kept the evening moving entertainingly, understood and executed the themes of the play and brought excellent work out of his actors with a thorough understanding of the story and the characters. He has also assembled a fantastic list of dozens of talented people to assist him. Albany Civic Theater and Mr. Jones have created a home for “The Heiress” and all who love her to gather in and celebrate this great story, so well told.
“The Heiress” at Albany Civic Theater