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Cruelty Forges a Shining 'Heiress'

Theater review: Gerald Gutierrez directs Cherry Jones in a luminous performance of a woman's emerging spirit.

September 13, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The role of Catherine Sloper won an Academy Award for Olivia de Havilland in 1949 and a Tony for Cherry Jones in 1995. It's a great part--to understand how great, one only has to glimpse Jones making her entrance at the Ahmanson Theatre in Catherine's cherry-red dress, desperate to please.

Catherine is the heroine, if that is the word, of "The Heiress," the 1947 play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. The husband-and-wife team did a masterful job of dramatizing this story, a fascinating tale originally told to Henry James as gossip by an actress and then embroidered by James into the 1880 novel "Washington Square."

The Ahmanson is host to a breathtaking production of the play that opened Wednesday and was originally produced by Lincoln Center Theater. Jones, director Gerald Gutierrez and set and lighting designers John Lee Beatty and Beverly Emmons are, quite simply, among the most gifted people currently working in the American theater. To see their work dovetail as perfectly as it does in "The Heiress" is a sublime experience.

When we first see Catherine Sloper (Jones), she is a gentle but charming young lady of marriageable age, speaking with her Aunt Lavinia (Frances Sternhagen) in the front room of the expansive Sloper manse on New York's Washington Square, 1850. Catherine is the only daughter of a wealthy doctor (Donald Moffat), a widower who has never gotten over his wife's death in childbirth.

Catherine relies to a pathetic degree on her father for her view of herself, and we can see immediately that he is the harshest possible judge. As soon as he enters, Catherine becomes what he sees--awkward, appallingly dull, unsophisticated. She keeps her hand on her stomach to help shield her from his nonchalantly devastating observations. She can do nothing right under his watchful, ostensibly paternal stare.

No wonder then that Catherine responds with embarrassing immediacy to the first man who offers her a different reflection. It is her misfortune--as well as the young man's--that he turns out to be a suave fortune hunter named Morris Townsend (the tense Michael Cumpsty). Morris and Dr. Sloper embark on an emotionally brutal struggle over Catherine's loyalty and her money. Whether or not Morris cares for Catherine at all is a fascinating mystery, as is the question of her father's love. But even more substantial is the mystery of whether or not Morris' affection even matters, as long as his perceived love provides a new identity for this wounded young woman.

The characters are drawn with such intelligence that the story works on two levels, as a cliff-hanger and, most satisfyingly, as a psychological study on the devastation wrought by cruelty in the shaping of a personality. It is indescribably touching to see Catherine's gaze fly to Morris as he renders her to her father with far more charity than her father could ever muster. Morris' expressed faith in her gives Catherine the first inklings of independence from her father.

*

Jones is extraordinary, using great delicacy to make Catherine's feelings transparent and available to us at all times. She begins as a woman who cannot look at people at all, or else stares too long at them, and with a simpering, pleading smile. After absorbing some pitiless blows, her gaze grows steadier, her smile less pleading; she learns to take joy in cruelty. And she's much better at it than she was at naive ignorance. As the character matures, Jones begins to take ownership of her large body, to move in it masterfully. She shows us that cruelty, not love, makes Catherine luminous. She finds it thrilling, in fact.

Moffat is compelling as the cultivated doctor. We can almost believe that he is trying to protect his daughter from harm; he says vicious things in the most impeccably polite tones. Sternhagen imbues the foolish, flirtatious old aunt with dignity.

Gutierrez leads the company with unfailing sensitivity to the story. He seems to possess a searchlight for emotional truth, and he does not make a wrong move (his "Delicate Balance," currently on Broadway, exhibits the same searching insight). His perceptivity is matched by his designers. Beatty creates an imposing room, showing us the stability and comfort that Morris is truly courting. Its walls, though, are diaphanous, to match Catherine's emotions. Dominant in the background is the all-important staircase on which Catherine makes the most important entrances and departures of her life.

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