By PAM HARBAUGH
The proper, unyielding culture that was New York society in the mid-1800s reveals itself in Melbourne Civic Theatre’s handsome and sure-footed production of “The Heiress.”
Adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from the Henry James novel, “Washington Square,” this high mannered drama examines love and duty, or at least polite society’s notion of duty. In it, dull and dim-witted Catherine Sloper lives with her domineering father, Dr. Austin Sloper. A rich man enjoying the niceties of high society, he clearly wishes his daughter were more like her late mother, an outgoing, beautiful woman who died giving birth to Catherine.
In time, Catherine meets and falls in love with Morris Townsend, a charming, handsome, but penniless young man who appears instantly infatuated with her. Dr. Sloper soon worries that Morris is a fortune hunter wanting his daughter’s inheritance and does what he can to interfere with his daughter’s plans. But by now, thanks to Morris’ attention and affection, Catherine has grown more self confident and discovers her own voice.
The drama leaves the audience questioning who was right, who was wrong. Is love worth self-respect? Is revenge worth loneliness it may exact?
This melodrama is the stuff — the meat and potatoes — that set the stage for all those emotion strewn soap operas and long running television series where romance and power collide.
But this is period drama, which means proper behavior, tight stage movement and close attention even to the simple act of standing still. Like the flesh restricted by corsettes, here emotions seethe within. But when they do erupt, they become palpable. In the hands of the MCT cast, led by its most capable director, Peg Girard, the show succeeds on many levels as period drama, both in its taut acting style and repression of emotion.
The fine cast all disappear into their roles, bringing rich portrayals of people imprisoned by their own sense of right and wrong.
Steven Wolf finds the imperious soul to Dr. Sloper without once overplaying him as a dark menace. His portrayal is of a man who is flush with self-assurance but sincerely wanting the best for his daughter.
Susan Suomi brings a gentle, nurturing and warmly comic touch to Lavinia, the romantic aunt who helps Catherine.
Alfie Silva is a dream as dashing Morris Townsend, painting the role with both precision and flourish. Flipping up the coattails just so before he sits, bowing gracefully before he kisses the back of a lady’s hand, or posing with a hand on a lapel, he is the heart of the romantic Morris. In fact, we can’t help cheering him on, despite our own questions about his morals.
But the acting triumph here goes to Tracey Thompson, who lets blossom a glorious arc to her portrayal of Catherine. She brings Catherine from shy and timid to romantic and head strong without once forsaking the demands of this acting genre. Catherine wins our hearts, leaving us to want the best for her. We ache when she makes decisions that seem rash and sigh when she receives the love she so desperately needs.
Of course, helping the cast in their portrayals are the exquisite production values in MCT’s “The Heiress.”
Scenic designers Gary Postlethwait and Alfie Silva create a luxurious two-story town home complete with gas lights, stiff furniture, paintings hung correctly from crown molding, a fireplace with mantel and sliding French doors leading to offstage dramatic space…all within the tiny confines of a 93-seat theater.
Alan Selby’s lighting design adds vivid life and passage of time to the story. Add to that Wendy Reader’s smart and oh-so-effective sound design which heightens reality, i.e. the increased tension when an off-stage horse-drawn carriage stops at the house…or rides by it.
This production is exquisite. It is very rare, indeed, to be able to enjoy classic drama on a stage other than those in academic theater. Yes, there was that recent Broadway production of “The Heiress” starring Jessica Chastain. Could a renaissance of classic theater be just around the corner?
Fortunately, you have Melbourne Civic Theatre and don’t have to wait for the mainstream to catch up. You can experience it now.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Heiress” runs through June 23 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. adults, seniors, students and military. Call 321-723-6935 or visit www.mymct.org.