Theater by its nature requires “suspension of disbelief,” but sometimes a little extra help is required. (Just ask Douglas Hodge!) And since Jessica Chastain’s cheekbones could probably cut glass, and her skin glows like the full moon, it can be a little hard to swallow all the chatter about her character, Catherine Sloper, being “ugly” and “unlovable” in Moises Kaufman’s otherwise sterling revival of Ruth & Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress at the Walter Kerr Theater.
In the show’s early acts, the luminous Chastain uses her admirable technique to emphasize Catherine’s lack of social grace and self-confidence – her awkward curtsies as she navigates Albert Wolsky’s gorgeous gowns are almost worth the price of admission. But even if one believes she’s not the most eligible bachelorette in New York, it’s hardly inconceivable that dashing charmer Morris Townsend (a thoroughly beguiling Dan Stevens) has quickly fallen for Catherine after just a few meetings.
Which isn’t to downplay the suspicions of her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (David Strathairn, perfectly combining carefully calibrated measures of coldness, regret, cruelty, and genuine parental concern), who firmly believes the penniless Morris’ primary interests lie not in his daughter’s charms, but her current income and future fortune. It’s medicine that Catherine finds hard to swallow, especially as Austin often treats Catherine with disdain for not living up to his image (real or intensified) of her late mother.
But whether or not money can buy you love is a dilemma that barely interests Austin’s widowed sister, Lavinia Penniman (Judith Ivey, giving an expertly-conceived, scene-stealing performance). It’s not just her own infatuation with Morris that causes her to plead his case, although you never doubt for a second she’d jump on him given half a chance. Instead, it’s her own experience – colored as it may be – as a woman left alone in the world that makes her urge Catherine to enter into a marriage with Morris.
Kaufman smartly leaves little doubt of Morris’ infatuation with the finer things in life, from the silk gloves he bought in Europe with money that might have been better spent on his devoted sister (a fine Dee Nelson) to the crystal glasses he caresses inside Derek McLane’s sumptuous vision of the Slopers’ 19th-century Washington Square townhouse.
And when his eyes tear up late in the play, after Catherine presents him with jeweled buttons she’s brought him from Paris, it’s clear how a life of poverty has clarified Morris’ priorities. But it’s to Stevens’ considerable credit that just a shadow of a doubt remains that his feelings for Catherine are as genuine as the rubies he covets.
By the time the gift is made, however, Catherine – newly sure of herself – has made an irrevocable decision. Watching Catherine grow in resolve and self-esteem — and seeing Chastain magnificently command the stage while doing so — is perhaps the greatest pleasure of this production. When those enviable cheeks finally burn with fire –almost as red as her home’s brocaded wallpaper — Chastain’s Catherine becomes a woman neither to be pitied nor merely loved, but a person to be admired, even feared, and yes, deeply desired.