Jessica Chastain’s haunting turn as Catherine Sloper, the young maid of an endlessly disappointed and wealthy father, in The Heiress marks yet another stunning performance for the Academy Award nominated actress. The Julliard alum’s stage homecoming is one marked by effortless grace and eloquent exhilaration whilst inhabiting the consciousness of a young spinster torn between the suspicious love of a handsome suitor and her overbearing and often disheartened father. Amidst this struggle between male affection and Catherine’s own harrowing loneliness begins The Heiress, a brilliantly crafted narrative interrogating the façade of wealth, gender politics, upper-class illusions and the often delusional potency of high society influence.
Catherine Sloper spends her nights sat restlessly in the parlor with her needlework whilst her cousins’ conduct a seemingly never-ending discussion of marriage proposals. The devastating loneliness and tangible disenchantment of the protagonist appears inescapable; her reality, bound to the suffocation of her father’s home, is one of fierce rejection. Her company is limited to her physician father (the immaculate David Strathairn), a slew of debutante cousins and her concerned and often desperate, but always charming Aunt Lavinia (Judith Ivey). Catherine’s dysfunctional domestic drama is one defined by a matrix of conflicted relationships and subsequently infected by the seething presence of blame, resent and utterly debilitating frustration.
Set amidst the decadent wealth of (turn of the century) high New York Society, the deceivingly drab Catherine finds herself the object of the debonair Morris Townsend’s (the ever wonderful Dan Stevens) aggressive pursuit. Catherine’s whirlwind courtship with Morris explores the deceptive realities of the social elite where affluence and wealth are dizzily discussed during brandy drenched evenings in the parlor. Morris, a convenient opportunist whose motives are clouded by his good looks, tangible charm and seductive intellect, ignites in Catherine a lust—not only for him, but a life of her own, outside of perpetual dismissal from her father, and outside the rejection she has inflicted upon herself.
In a theatrical exploration of manipulation and power, and the tightly coiled intimacy of influence and wealth, director Moisés Kaufman’s revival of Henry James’ novel Washington Square (first adapted for the stage in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz) is a loyal adaptation whose timely intellectual considerations remain relevant. Kaufman’s production is one of extravagant decadence epitomising New York high Society with brilliantly fashioned costumes and a truly luxurious set design—though this facade of Catherine’s world could not be further away from the inner reality she has come to endure.
Chastain, although supported by an intensely gifted cast, is undoubtedly the production’s standout performer. Her greatest accomplishment lies in a flawless ability to depict Catherine’s extreme emotional divide: a devoted submission to her overbearing father and a lustful desire to be with her gentleman caller which would allow her to escape the asphyxiating confines of her father’s home. Conflicted and greatly pained, Chastain’s Catherine never flirts with the stereotype of an over-exaggerated damsel in distress, but rather her declarations of loneliness, longing and inadequacy are poignant, passionate but never melodramatic. Her control of Catherine’s inner turmoil is masterful, especially in the slow boil of her transformation from the first act to the second resulting in a powerful swell of self-realisation. Her voice now articulate, she is confident and drunk with emotion, commanding and crisp, her posture straight, and with a confidence that flirts with a subtle bitterness. Beautifully understated but often melancholy, Chastain’s Catherine Sloper is a treasure.
The Heiress concluded its run in early February 2013.
Watch an Interview with the Cast from The Heiress: