Dysfunction. Resentment. Money. Add an element of vengeance to the mix and we’ve got a story. The Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress included all these qualities. The cast and crew showed the audience that while money can’t buy happiness, it can sure exacerbate a lot of misery.
Admittedly, my expectations for this performance were rather low. William Wyler adapted this 1947 play from Henry James’ Washington Square. Wordy serves as the best word to describe this author’s work. I figured the play would run into the Christmas season.
My second concern involved the casting. In his novel, James described Catherine Sloper as a “dull-looking glutton”. When I saw Marnie Kanarek in the role I felt conflicted. She’s certainly not a “dull-looking glutton”. I struggled to identify her as Catherine at first. While gazing into her big blue eyes through the first scene, I realized that Directors Ed Doyle and Matthew Weil made the right call casting against type here.
Ms. Kanarek delivered a phenomenal performance as Catherine. Through her twitching and hurried talking she portrayed a reticent, socially awkward young woman. By the end of the play she transformed into an angry, bitter and vindictive woman made old well before her years. I applaud her measured transition during the show.
I’m still struggling to find the right word describing her facial expressions during the final scene. While doing needlepoint, she had this look like she was going to slash and stab the tapestry. As I sat in the front row, the house manager’s pre-performance announcement that “those close to the stage may get closer to the action than they wish” gave me a chill.
I also have to credit Ms. Kanarek for Catherine’s meltdown during the second scene in Act Two. This mental breakdown was one for the ages. Screaming she tore open her suitcase. Flailing her arms she hurled clothes all over the stage. (I didn’t envy Narci Regina, in the role of the maid, the task of cleaning up this mess.) I probably would’ve called 911 had I not been seated so close to the stage. She scared me.
From reading the playbill, singing is Ms. Kanarek’s strength. That surprised me as The Heiress lacked musical numbers. She displayed outstanding acting chops throughout the entire performance. I can’t emphasize that enough to give her the credit she deserves.
Tyler Reed did a great job courting Catherine in his role as Morris Townsend. This character reminded me a bit of Fr. Flynn from John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Reed played a suave, smooth-talker with an answer for everything. Was he really after Catherine’s money? Did he truly love her? Could he be trusted? When Dr. Sloper (played by Michael Hicks) accused him of being “mercenary”, he calmly rebutted. He always did so by telling his accusers exactly what they wanted to hear. What a coincidence. Or wasn’t it?
Reed also performed well in Townsend’s scenes with Aunt Livinia. (Played by Phyllis Pomerantz.) His charming laughter and wit made me think he wanted to win her over. Then again, maybe he did. His behavior certainly encouraged her myriad matchmaking machinations.
Henry James once wrote, “I’ve always been interested in people, but I’ve never liked them.” Dr. Sloper (played by Michael Hicks) embodied this world view. I liked Hick’s interpretation of the character; particularly the way he tilted his head back whenever he sat in his chair. In keeping with the role, he delivered his lines in a staccato, machine gun like barrage. In his talented hands, Dr. Sloper became austere, unemotional and analytical. He freely expressed his resentment towards Catherine. (Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her.) Not the best qualities for someone raising an insecure daughter.
Mr. Hicks displayed another of the doctor’s bad qualities when holding a glass of brandy during every scene. Yes, you read that right. The doctor had a brandy every scene. I guess the standards for physicians in 1850s New York were more lax than the current ones. Did I mention he had a brandy in every scene? I’m surprised Dr. Sloper didn’t contract cirrhosis of the liver during the show.
The thespians conducted themselves very professionally. As we all know, technical glitches happen on occasion. During a crucial discussion between Ms. Kanarek and Mr. Ross the lights flickered for several minutes. These two actors weren’t distracted. They remained focused and got through the scene flawlessly. The blinking diverted my attention a few times. I really applaud their ability in not allowing this snafu to inhibit their performances.
I did have one criticism of the show. All the actors spoke fast. (As I wrote above: I thought Mr. Hicks’ delivery consistent with his character. After all: the faster Dr. Sloper got the words out, the faster he could drink more brandy.) In fact, several performers tripped over their words a few times. I figured they talked this way to reflect the speaking patterns of upper class New Yorkers in 1850. To be fair, I didn’t have any trouble hearing or understanding anything said on stage. In addition, everyone in the cast spoke with perfect diction. At no point in the show did I notice any mispronunciations. That’s a great accomplishment when speaking quickly.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The rich are different than the rest of us.” After watching The Heiress, I sure hope that’s right. While money may not buy happiness, it can get you a few hours of stellar entertainment at Haddonfield Plays and Players. The Heiress runs through May 23rd.