This autumn offering by The Theatre Group at SBCC is a powerful drama by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on Washington Square, Henry James’s 1880 novel that focuses on the relationship between a wealthy New York physician, Austin Sloper (Tom Hinshaw), and his shy, plain, and awkward adult daughter, Catherine (Avery Clyde). Director Judy Garey makes terrific use of dramatic talent and scenic know-how in this engaging, psychologically involved, and visually impressive work. To be sure, The Heiress is a notable piece of heavy lifting, with mid-1800s period costumes and sets and a script that clocks in at over two and a half hours. Patricia L. Frank has designed an exquisite parlor room for the Sloper residence, with marble columns, a staircase with a runner, daylight-lit windows with damask draperies, a crystal chandelier, and wall sconces. And Pamela Shaw’s costumes are the perfect complement to the ambiance.
Dr. Sloper is an emotionally distant father whose heart has been closed ever since his wife died during childbirth. He harbors resentment toward Catherine because she is the child that “killed” her mother, and at the same time he wastes no opportunity to criticize her for her shortcomings. Sloper’s oppressive influence on his daughter manifests out of his idealization of his late wife, against whom he is compelled to measure Catherine. Not believing Catherine is inherently lovable, he is suspicious of the intentions of a suitor, Morris Townsend (Josh Jenkins), with whom Catherine falls in love.
Hinshaw’s Sloper is a quietly forceful patriarch, certain of his opinions. Ambiguity in Morris’s motive is one of the most important engines driving the drama forward, and Jenkins does a fine job keeping us guessing. Equally important is the slow emancipation of the inner being of Catherine, and Clyde gives a convincing performance as the suppressed heiress progressively struggling to find her own voice and identity. Leslie Gangl Howe is superb as Lavinia Penniman, Catherine’s meddling aunt. Leslie Ann Story turns in a strong performance as the other aunt, Elizabeth Almond. Marion Freitag is a compelling presence as Maria, the maid. The cast also includes Evan Bell as Arthur Townsend, Katherine Bottoms as Marian Almond, and Kate Bergstrom as Mrs. Montgomery.