By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
The gap between a father (James FitzGerald) and daughter (Erika Cuenca) widens when a young man (Alec Silberblatt) inserts himself into their lives in “The Heiress.”
The father, Dr. Austin Sloper, is a rigid man with a low opinion of his daughter, Catherine. He has an even lower opinion of her suitor, Morris Townsend.
In a brief tête-à-tête, he confides in his sister, Lavinia (Karen Baum), that he fears Catherine will never be of much value to society. The doctor continually compares his plain, awkward daughter to his fascinating and vivacious wife – who died in labor delivering Catherine.
To quote Harvey Fierstein, “It’s easier to love someone who’s dead. They make so few mistakes.”
Dr. Sloper is able to disguise his contempt until his other sister Elizabeth (Cary Anne Spear) pays a visit. She is accompanied by her daughter; Marian (Anne Rematt); Arthur Townsend, her daughter’s fiancé (Max Pavel); and, most unexpectedly, Morris Townsend, Arthur’s cousin.
Morris is smitten with Catherine, but Dr. Sloper is convinced that Arthur’s penniless cousin is after his daughter for her money. Upon the doctor’s demise, Catherine is to inherit $30,000 a year, which is a gargantuan sum of money in 1850 (when the play takes place).
Two weeks after meeting her, Morris proposes to Catherine. The announcement further infuriates Dr. Sloper. He sends his maid, Maria (Samantha A. Camp), on an errand to summon Mrs. Montgomery (Gayle Pazerski), Morris’s sister.
The doctor tries to ascertain Morris’s motives by interrogating Mrs. Montgomery. Her answers do not provide any conclusive evidence, but the doctor makes his decision nonetheless.
While he is cruel and harsh, he might not be wrong. The hardest thing any parent can do is watch his children make their own mistakes.
Director Alan Stanford is working with a superbly talented cast. Stanford peppered the play with a lot of familiar favorites and added some bright new faces to this production.
Cuenca successfully plays a multifaceted role. Catherine has a very distinct arc. Catherine goes from naïve young woman to discerning adult. Cuenca makes a smooth transition between the two separate personalities.
FitzGerald is commanding. His Dr. Sloper is tough, guarded and difficult, but not completely unlikable. Oddly, the unaffectionate father is not the villain. He also gets some very witty lines.
Silberblatt does a beautiful job as Morris Townsend. It takes a while before you know if you’re supposed to root for him or against him, but Silberblatt makes him sympathetic even when he’s at his most treacherous.
Baum’s Lavinia is delightful. She livens up the stage with every appearance.
Camp accomplishes a lot with a wink, a nod and a sigh. She adds a lot of depth to the character. Camp’s Maria is devoted to the doctor (but has very little patience for anyone else).
Pavel’s personality enlarges his small part. He delivers sardonic bon mots with charm.
Pazerski also does a lot with a little. She only has one big scene, but she goes toe-to-toe with FitzGerald’s Sloper.
Scenic artist Domenico LaGamba welcomes us into the stately manor of the Sloper home in the tony Washington Square neighborhood (the furniture is ornate and sturdy).
Joan Markert’s costumes are lush and elegant, befitting the extravagant lifestyle of an heiress.
Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the tragicomedy, “Washington Square,” from American novelist Henry James. The story began as a serial running through Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1880. The play is a bit long, but it’s not overwritten. Every line has a purpose, propelling plot and character toward an irrevocable climax.
Considering that it was written in the 1880’s, there is an underlying theme of female empowerment. James seems to be asking, “When should a woman stand up to a man and when should she not?”
“The Heiress” is billed as a “timeless tale,” because greed, sadly, never goes out of style.
“The Heiress” runs until April 27 at WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio, 4802 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh PA 15213. For more information, contact PICT Classic Theatre here.