SOLANA BEACH — When a woman hits fouls in the game of love, check out her father, who may have thrown her the curves.
That's the idea behind "The Heiress," Ruth and Augustus Goetz's masterful adaptation of Henry James' "Washington Square," a psychologically penetrating novel about the vulnerable daughter of a disapproving father.
The show, in a handsome production at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, has bombed only once--on an out-of-town tryout in New Haven, Conn. It was a 1947 success on Broadway, a highly regarded film of 1949 (winning an Oscar for Olivia de Havilland) and a lavishly reviewed revival in 1995 (earning a Tony for Cherry Jones). The show also had a successful run last year in Los Angeles.
"The Heiress" is not flashy, just a fascinating case study that rings tragically true at every turn. At the heart of it is Catherine, played feelingly here by D. Candis Paule as a tongue-tied young woman with staring, vulnerable eyes.
Catherine is open and trusting, sweet and simple. That's why it hurts so devastatingly when her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (played with sardonic control by Charlie Riendeau), lets her know--in so many little throwaway remarks--how plain she is, how dull, how socially awkward, how disappointing.
Catherine's mother died in childbirth. Dr. Sloper never stops resenting his daughter for his wife's death; he never stops comparing her unfavorably with an impossibly lovely memory of his wife.
Into the life of this cowed girl comes a handsome fortune hunter, Morris Townsend (played with a grace that turns subtly anxious by Jeffrey Jones), who is clearly in love with Catherine's fine home and likely inheritance.
But does he love Catherine too, as he says? Catherine believes him. She needs to believe him. Dr. Sloper thinks not; how could anyone love his daughter for anything but money? The ensuing confrontation will take no prisoners; hearts and lives will be utterly transformed as cruelty takes its inexorable toll on Catherine's soul.
Don Loper's sensitive direction illuminates the barbarity of the oh-so-very-well-spoken, brittle exchanges. Sandra Ellis-Troy exudes compassion as the romantic aunt who so much wants her niece's happiness. Jillian Frost brings great dignity to the genteel but struggling Mrs. Montgomery, Townsend's sister.
Marty Burnett's sets and Nancy Tedokon's costumes suggest the elegance of the Slopers' Washington Square estate.
But the heart of it all is Catherine's heart, a timeless heart that James understood over a hundred years ago with a delicacy that makes any pat psychological pronouncements hopelessly coarse.
Here, the greatest accomplishment is Paul's performance; you can read Catherine's emotions as you would study bones with X-rays. James, a failed dramatist, may very well have enjoyed that.
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* "The Heiress," North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 26. $16-$18. (888) 776-NCRT or (619) 481-1055. Running time: 2 hours, 27 minutes.
Joanie Merriman: Maria
Charlie Riendeau: Dr. Austin Sloper
Sandra Ellis-Troy: Lavinia Penniman
D. Candis Paule: Catherine Sloper
Dagmar Fields: Elizabeth Almond
Dave Lamb: Arthur Townsend
Fia Lefkowitz: Marian Almond
Jeffrey Jones: Morris Townsend
Jillian Frost: Mrs. Montgomery
A North Coast Repertory Theatre production of a play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from the Henry James novel "Washington Square." Directed by Don Loper. Sets: Marty Burnett. Lights: Richard Fellner. Sound: Michael Shapiro. Costumes: Nancy Tedokon. Stage manager: Laura Hopkinson.