Never before has the musical clippity-clop of horse hooves sounded as petulant or mocking as they do in Moisés Kaufman’s newly opened production of The Heiress, the second Broadway revival of Augustus and Ruth Goetz’s play. When Catherine Sloper (Jessica Chastain) hears those hoof beats galloping right on by the opulent townhouse in which she lives under the intimidating shadow of her father, her fate appears to be sealed. And yet this proto-feminist work, which reverberates as clearly now as it did when first presented in 1947, shows that the choice Catherine makes for her future is not a reaction but very much her own.
Heiress has always been a work surprisingly jam-packed with texture, given that it was based on Henry James’ slim novella; the author himself decried his own work for its comparative slightness to his other writing. Part social commentary and part subtle gothic horror, Heiress is the story of a woman manipulated by men who think her only worth lies in her dowry, until she decides to be malleable no more. That Chastain, a Juilliard grad who became a household name in the past year after appearing in roughly seventeen thousand films a week, is more physically alluring than poor Catherine has been drawn to be in the past (most notably by Olivia de Havilland’s Oscar-winning role in William Wyler’s film adaptation and Cherry Jones’s Tony-nabbing turn in the last revival eighteen seasons ago) is rendered moot early on, and not just by the unflattering kinky hair and hollowed out makeup Paul Huntley has designed for her. (Other designers, notably set designer Derek McLane, costume designer Albert Wolsky, and sound engineer Leon Rothenberg deserve major plaudits as well.)
No, what Chastain communicates so artfully, if simply, is what it is to be a woman, regardless of appearance, made to feel small and unworthy. She’s not the first beautiful actress to project inner deflation on the outside: Michelle Pfeiffer bled oceans of victimization in the too-often-ballyhooed Frankie and Johnny film adaptation. And Gwyneth Paltrow, in Shallow Hal, showed what it was to look like someone who had been ostracized her entire life when the actress wasn’t in plus-size costuming. And so it is that Chastain shows how Catherine has grown up a prisoner in the house of her overbearing father, the well-respected doctor Austin Sloper (David Strathairn). She’s been a thorn in his side since the moment she was born, literally, as his revered wife died in childbirth. Austin has resented her existence as well as the fact that she hasn’t grown up with more charm and cunning, unaware of the fact that he is the very force who has stymied her emotional and social growth all along. (Catherine is what Rory Gilmore might have become had she been raised by her grandparents from birth.)
Long of the opinion that his daughter will remain an old maid, Austin is skeptical when Dan Stevens’ Morris Townshend begins courting her, and what is remarkable about Strathairn’s measured performance is how well he can signal Austin’s transformation from protective parent to monster. He would rather cut his own daughter off than welcome Morris into the family, so convinced is he that the man could only love his daughter for her inheritance, causing greater hurt than any other he could want to shield her from. Kaufman wrangles complex emotional excavations for all four of the show’s principle characters. It’s a joy to watch Chastain inject the bubbles of emotional effervescence one feels from first love, and it’s tragic to finally watch her harden like cement. And the letter-perfect manner in which both Stevens and Judith Ivey, in the perpetually scene-stealing role of Catherine’s widowed Aunt Lavinia, approach mercenary resourcefulness, show that in the world of social climbing, there is no such thing as right or wrong, just those who succeed and those who do not. (Virginia Kull strikes wonderfully unexpected grace notes as the family maid as well.)
This Heiress isn’t as dynamic or definitive a show as some of the revivals currently playing the Main Stem. Kaufman knows that the power of Catherine’s maturation comes not in explosive moments but in quiet ones. When she eventually sizes up the men in her orbit, she has no need to lash out at them; she has already realized how easily she can live without them. Before the final curtain falls, though, we’re watching more than just a defiant woman climb a staircase. We’re witnessing the Ascent of Woman.
Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street. (212) 239-6200. Through February 10.
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