A much-anticipated revival of The Heiress, a 1947 play based on the Henry James novella Washington Square, opens in New York on Thursday. It marks the Broadway debut of two accomplished young stars — Jessica Chastain, the Academy Award nominee from The Help, and Dan Stevens, from the hit television series Downton Abbey.
On the surface, the story of The Heiress seems simple enough — a wealthy young woman in Victorian New York is torn between her controlling father and a young, penniless suitor. Is the father being overprotective? Is the young man just a cad? But there’s much more going on, says director Moisés Kaufman.
“Henry James — because his brother, William James, was a psychologist — he really understood a lot about human psychology and he got so much so right so early on,” Kaufman says. He describes the revival as “very Jamesian” in its darkness and ambiguity.
“Henry James doesn’t write about villains and saints,” Kaufman says. “He writes about people with flesh and blood. And one of the things that we kept talking about in this play was that those kind of ambiguities make the production richer.”
Hollywood star Jessica Chastain plays the heiress, Catherine, and David Straithairn plays her father, Dr. Austin Sloper. The petite red-haired Chastain is all but unrecognizable in a tangled wig of frizzy brown hair and a jangle of awkward mannerisms, playing an only child trying desperately to get her father’s approval. Chastain says she was attracted to the role because of the character’s arc.
“The story’s very relevant because throughout history, women have been defined by the men in their life,” she says. “And Catherine, in the beginning of the play is defined by her father and then she’s defined by her suitor and at the end, she sets boundaries and she’s defined by herself. And I’m really moved by that.”
The man who wants Catherine is the charming, handsome, but nearly destitute Morris Townsend. Dan Stevens says he didn’t want to play Morris as some sort of mustache-twirling villain, only out to get the heiress’ $30,000 a year.
“This is true of a lot of Henry James characters, that the two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive; that you can be in love with somebody and also with their things and their lifestyle and the luxury which they inhabit,” he says. “So that’s, you know, an interesting thing to look at and to play with.”
Kaufman says the script, by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, focuses on the ideas of truth and honesty, but in very much the manner of 1850s New York.
“The way that they deal with each other … has much more to do with Victorian propriety than it has to do with contemporary psychology,” Kaufman says. “And by that I mean, that there’s a way in which they’re very frank and a way in which they are not … in which they really keep lying to each other, for a variety of reasons, some of which are very good reasons.”
The play reaches one of its climaxes when the doctor bluntly tells Catherine why he is so opposed to her engagement to Morris and his own doubts about her self worth.
“I have been reasonable with you,” Sloper says to his daughter. “I have tried not to be unkind, but now it is time for you to realize the truth: How many women do you think [Morris] might have had in this town? … 100 are prettier, 1,000 more clever, but you have one virtue which outshines them all. … Your money.”
“It is devastating, when your whole life has been about … [pleasing] your father,” Chastain says. “But also, for me, I imagine there’s a great sense of freedom; so, to actually know: OK, my instinct was right. He doesn’t like me. Now, after knowing this, how can I move on in my life?”
How Catherine Sloper moves on with her life turns out to be both heartbreaking and surprising.