From The Commercial Appeal
The Heiress" hits right tone in Theatre Memphis production
by Jon W. Sparks, The Commercial Appeal Oct 18, 2014
There’s something simple and even stately about “The Heiress” now playing at Theatre Memphis’ Lohrey Stage through Nov. 2. Adapted from Henry James’ short novel “Washington Square,” it’s a straightforward story of love, trust, family and motives where the principal characters fascinate because they attract and repulse us.James, who published the story in 1880, sets it in New York City in 1850. The play, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz and performed on Broadway in 1947, takes a few liberties with the original but maintains the essential conflicts and conversations that make this such a thoughtful, penetrating work.
The story takes place in the household of Austin Sloper, a wealthy and successful doctor living with his shy, plain daughter Catherine in their elegant home on Washington Square. Catherine’s mother was the love of Sloper’s life, vibrant and talented. She died soon after childbirth and he is thoroughly disappointed in his daughter, who exhibits none of the verve or ability of his late wife.Catherine is, in fact, quite sharp, but introverted and intimidated by her father. By chance, a young man named Morris Townsend visits the home and begins a courtship with Catherine, who is starved for the attention and affection. They resolve to wed, but the doctor sees only that Townsend is without money or prospects and clearly wants only to get his hands on Catherine’s fortune.What’s compelling about the story is that instead of sinister people, the main players behave in ways they feel are perfectly sound, whether from love or duty. Their inabilities to change propel the situation, yet as we observe them, we’re unsure where it will end up.
Tony Isbell directs, giving it a proper, well-paced formality that reflects the social time and place. There’s nothing like strained politeness to elevate the level of discomfort.There is a fine intelligence in the performances. Newcomer Michelle Miklosey deftly reveals the shadings of Catherine, who changes in remarkable ways through the story. As her father, Barclay Roberts is well cast as the no-nonsense patriarch, assured of and wearied by his devotion to family.Evan McCarley is a charmer as Townsend, leaving us unsure whether he’s running a con or has sincere intentions. Ann G. Sharp is a pure pleasure as Lavinia, Sloper’s sister who provides comic relief, but whose love of romance and intrigue serves no one well.The set — a front parlor in Sloper’s elegant home — and the costumes of hoopskirts and frock coats are all on the money.
From The Memphis Flyer
by Chris Davis, The Memphis Flyer Oct 23, 2014
The Heiress director Tony Isbell asks: "What's wrong with a little melodrama?"
In his day, author Henry James, who wrote the play's source material, would probably give Isbell an answer he wouldn't like. The Washington Square author grew to hate the simplicity of his story. His inability to love the slender, unaffected novel is especially ironic, considering it tells the story of Catherine Sloper, a cripplingly shy woman who is ultimately unable to love because she was perceived as being plain and unclever and grew up unloved as a result. Fortunately, the author's straightforward portrait of a woman struggling with cultural expectations still captures our imagination. It's helped along in no small part by solid to stellar acting and an attractive set and costume design.Isbell appeared in Theatre Memphis' landmark 1986 revival of the show. He starred as Morris Townsend opposite Christina Wellford Scott, who has also returned in a supporting role in this production. Their collective experience is felt in a play that feels grounded and complete.The Heiress is set in New York in the 1850s, and the story goes something like this: Sloper's mother died in childbirth, and as a result, her father, a successful and worldly doctor, sees his daughter as the person who murdered his happiness. Worse, the daughter (so unlike the mother) has the audacity to be plain and ungraceful, with no great ear for music or conversation. Worst of all, she's beguiled by Townsend, a charming but unemployed young profligate who may actually love her a little but is fantasizing openly about the prospects of a wife worth $30,000 a year.There is something uncommonly likeable about actor Barclay Roberts. You can cast him as a complete scumbag, but no matter how vile his character, there's always something that makes you want to give the guy a hug. That intrinsically squeezable quality brings warmth to Dr. Sloper that may or may not really be there. It's one of Roberts' most convincing efforts.Memphis newcomer Michelle Miklosey is especially good at showing audiences just how debilitating shyness can be. Ann Sharp, a Theatre Memphis mainstay, provides comic relief as Catherine's compulsively romantic aunt.To answer Isbell's original melodrama question: When it's presented this thoughtfully, there's nothing wrong with it at all.