It was a pity that the St. Jean's Players' production of the chestnut The Heiress didn't match its efforts in casting and costume design with equal ones in set design and lighting. But church halls often present their own challenges, to which no efforts of artistically inclined theatre companies can prove a match.
The story concerns a rather plain and less-than-clever young lady, Catherine Sloper (Cecilia Jordan), on the brink of becoming -- horrors! -- an old maid, and her relationship with her father, a respected physician of some means (Bryan McHaffey). Catherine falls afoul of a distant relative, Morris Townsend (Joseph P. Miller), who steals her heart -- as a first step to getting her fortune. Dr. Sloper tries to put a stop to the match by threatening to disinherit her and by taking her off to Europe for an extended tour, a ploy that is quite undone immediately upon her return, when she sets eyes on Morris again.
It is easy to side with Catherine, even though Morris is clearly a cad, because Dr. Sloper is so rigidly an apparent enemy of young love. He denigrates Catherine's talents and looks, and continues to pine for his long-dead wife, who died giving birth to Catherine. He himself eventually dies, and Catherine shows her spunk by confronting him as he is about to disinherit her, almost on his deathbed.
Catherine, however, is not a young fool. She lets Morris think her father did indeed disinherit her (he didn't), and Morris takes off for the West. She finally realizes the error of her ways. He comes back broke and lays siege to her again. She leads him to believe that she is ready to elope again, and takes great pleasure in listening to him from behind the locked front door when he arrives to carry her off. It is bittersweet revenge, for she will probably die an old maid.
The Heiress is the apotheosis of the well-made play. Its protagonist grows to appreciate her own folly, but the drama is in a very minor key. The purpose of the play is not to delve into man's (or woman's) stance vis-a-vis Eternity, but to milk the audience for the thrills and chills of an exciting game played for small stakes. To this end it twists and turns and sets up false hopes, only to dash them or turn them inside out. If ever a play deserved being called a boulevard drama, this is it.
But the principals took to the chase with gusto and gave it all they had. In particular, Jordan, as Catherine, conveyed the intensity of her shyness with every move and thought. Miller, as Morris, never let on what a louse he really was, always presenting the smooth and charming exterior that so obviously beguiled Catherine. And while McHaffey, as Dr. Sloper, slipped into staginess from time to time, he conveyed a complex and troubled soul -- genial and acidic by turns -- in the portrayal of which some hokum was well-employed. Sharon O'Neal, as Lavinia Penniman, a meddling poor relation, sometimes needed more volume, but proved a sturdy accomplice in undermining Dr. Sloper.
The costumes (coordinated by Diane Piro) conveyed a strong historical flavor, and reflected considerable effort, in particular Catherine's red gown, such an affront to her father's sensibilities (M. C. Waldrep). The set (Bob and Anita Bloom), alas, appeared to have been papered with Christmas wrapping (and contained a large couch that inconveniently blocked a table from view), and the lights were flat yellow strip lights and appeared to be standard issue with the hall.
Also featuring Pam Robbins, Diane Collins, Raw Erickson, Isabelle Marie Caillat, and Terry Grant.
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Copyright 2003 John Chatterton