“The 1850s were a bad hair decade,” laughs Avery Clyde, who will play the lead in the Theatre Group of Santa Barbara City College’s (SBCC) upcoming production of The Heiress. Clyde is very attractive, and her observation came by way of explaining how she will adopt a convincing look as the heiress Catherine Sloper, whose fate is largely determined by the perception that she is unusually plain. With just over a week to go before the show hits the stage at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre, the veteran actress is buoyant at the prospect of playing this part, partially because of the company she’s keeping. Film legend Olivia de Havilland and, more recently, Broadway star Cherry Jones have both wowed audiences in the role. When The Heiress opens here on October 15, the Los Angeles–based Clyde will be joined by some of the top talent in our area, including Tom Hinshaw as Catherine’s domineering father and Josh Jenkins as her handsome and unreliable suitor, Morris Townsend.
Although the premise of the play comes from the Henry James novel Washington Square, playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz clearly added something special when they adapted this story for the stage. The Heiress was an instant hit when it premiered back in 1947, and since then it’s been revived four times on Broadway and in countless regional productions. Set in the mid-19th century, The Heiress hinges on the question of what motivates a man to marry. Catherine Sloper is the only daughter of a wealthy New York doctor, and, as her mother died in childbirth, she has the expectation not only of a substantial allowance in the form of a trust fund but also the inheritance of her father’s fortune and his elegant Washington Square townhouse.
Enter Morris Townsend, the handsome man who asks for Catherine’s hand in marriage. In a series of tense scenes between father and daughter, the ailing and emotionally abusive doctor makes it clear that he sees Townsend as a gold digger, and he refuses to grant his blessing. Catherine refuses to bend to his will, but Townsend, upon learning that she may be disinherited, clears out for California, leaving the brokenhearted girl alone to reconcile with her now seemingly vindicated daddy. For Clyde, the core dynamic between father and daughter reveals the doctor’s weak spot — he never finished mourning his lost wife.
“He sees his daughter almost as the murderer of his wife,” she explained, adding that “the doctor remembers his wife as perfect — a beautiful and charming woman who did everything right. There’s no way that Catherine can live up to her father’s image of her mother. It’s not so much that there is anything wrong with her; she’s just not what he had.” When Catherine’s dream of love with Morris Townsend shatters, her transformation from a passive to an active character begins.
The Heiress sharpens the insight that provided Henry James with his point of departure for Washington Square. For a man, having money means being someone of importance in the world, but for a woman, having money can be perceived as being vulnerable. A rich man can choose any woman he likes without fear of censure, but a woman in the same position is suspect if she does not successfully perform the kind of femininity that men and women alike deem attractive. The double standard that assumes male autonomy in marital choice when money is involved puts women in the position of having something to prove. Catherine, caught between her father’s ruthless worldly wisdom and her lover’s ultimate faithlessness, must find a way to make herself count. The second act of The Heiress may veer in the direction of melodrama, but audiences for decades have agreed that the show’s stirring ending confirms everything that has lead up to it.
The Heiress will be at SBCC’s Garvin Theatre through Saturday, November 1. For tickets, information, and show times, call (805) 965-5935 or visit theatregroupsbcc.com.