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Thursday, 10 March 2011 00:03

Money can't buy love

Written by Bob Wilcox
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Any young woman who takes on the role of Catherine Sloper deserves credit simply for being willing to do it. Catherine is the central character in The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz's dramatization of Henry James's novella Washington Square. She is regularly described, especially by her father, as plain and painfully shy.

Sara Strawhun makes herself all of that as Catherine in the Kirkwood Theatre Guild production of the play, though I would guess, from her lively appearance in the curtain call, that Strawhun is actually a quite attractive young woman. But as Catherine, she wears geeky glasses (if that term may be applied to 1850), her eyebrows appear to have been thickened, and she can barely raise her eyes and speak to anyone outside the immediate family.

The playwrights do give her a moment with her shallow aunt – Deborah Dennert finds every morsel of fun in this character – when she delightfully structures her account of an amusing incident in her day. But when she attempts to tell it to her father, of whom she is not just wary but nearly terrified, she loses the wit in her telling, and it falls flat. As does just about everything she says.

Catherine does, eventually, find the courage to tell her father what she thinks of him and of the miserable life she has. It's probably more melodramatic than anything in Henry James (I confess I haven't read his piece), but it's dramatically satisfying, though on the level that the play, unfortunately, holds to throughout.

Richard Hunsaker tries to introduce some lovable moments into his portrait of the father, but he's stuck playing a very unpleasant individual, and the result is that he comes off most of the time as a well-done caricature and very close to the villain of a melodrama.

The other villain in The Heiress is Morris Townsend. Jake Bantel is as handsome as Morris must be and as smooth and pleasant – so much so that you almost wish he weren't a fortune-hunter and really did want to make Catherine happy.

Morris finds his way into the Sloper household by way of a cousin, played by JD Wade, who is marrying Catherine's cousin, played by Jessica Lyle. She is the daughter of another sister of the doctor, a firm and sensible matron in Jan Niehoff's performance. Betsy Gasoske shrewdly handles her brief turn as Morris's sister, called in as a not-entirely-satisfactory character witness for the young man.

Answering the door, bringing the sherry, generally keeping the household running is Elizabeth Graveman as the maid. On the basis of her four performances that I've seen, I can say that she brightens any production she graces, and I eagerly look forward to one that gives her a leading role.

Well-crafted, realistic sets are the rule at the Kirkwood Theatre Guild, so I was surprised to see Jan Meyer and Gary Sibbitts' set for The Heiress surrounded by black drapes. But with large set pieces – windows, a fireplace, a grandfather's clock, a stairway – placed within the drapes, it worked beautifully. Lee Meyer did the lights, Cherol Thibaut the period costumes, and Joe Arno the sound – a crucial element in this play, well cued by stage manger Rebeca Davidson. The assured and experienced directing hand of Jan Meyer guided the production.

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