note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Beverly Creasey
As the curtain rises on the Vokes Players' "The Heiress" you are struck by the opulence of Stephen McGonagle's set. The carved chestnut sumptuous Washington Square parlor is framed at the back by a railing leading the staircase to the bedrooms above. Two floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the Square. Small photographs and alabaster figurines are everywhere, and three large family portraits (painted by Michael Willhoite) grace walls which are papered in the dark, ornate wall coverings popular in the mid-19th century. A mahogany table and upholstered settee sit to sit to the right of a large fireplace. Even before the maid enters to tidy up fort a soiree, you know that these are wealthy, educated and very formal folk who live here.
The house belongs to Dr. Sloper, and the heiress of the title is his shy, plain (-spoken and -looking) daughter. You may remember from films of the Henry James story that a handsome suitor is about to come between father and daughter.
I prefer the Ruth and Augustus Goetz play to the original story, but the personal tragedy of three ruined lives remains the same in both. James is the master of the psychological novel, and his favorite theme --- the corruption of innocence --- is played out to the fullest as revenge in "The Heiress". It has all the elements --- lavish costumes, secret passion, and forbidden romance --- which make for thrilling theater (although some men I know disparage the genre as "chick flicks"; Boo Hiss on them!).
Pamela Mayne is a winning Catherine. Not as defenseless as her father paints her, Mayne gives her a spine --- which stuffens to stone in Act II. Robert Mackie plays the doctor as a strong man of principle whose shortsightedness where his daughter is concerned has dire consequences. Joe Johnson is a dashing suitor for Catherine. Johnson gets to go to seed nicely in Act II. The supporting cast, too, contributes to the stylized sweep of Berti's conception. From the vacuous newlyweds to Joanne Powers' infuriatingly chipper interfering aunt, from Linda Burtt's elegant costumes to Bill Triessl's moving music, everything adds to the melodramatic momentum. It carried me away.