Henry James wrote many brilliant and successful novels (The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians) but couldn’t find the magic when writing for the stage (Guy Domville, a prime example of critical claim and box office flop). Decades back, Ruth and Augustus Goetz sharpened their pencils and reworked James’ Washington Square into The Heiress (much as composer Benjamin Britten transformed The Turn of the Screw into an opera, premièring in Venice in 1954). It became the toast of the 1947-48 Broadway season.
Nearly six decades since Basil Rathbone created the role of Dr. Sloper, the Shaw Festival has launched its first production of this tale of family dysfunction and betrothal-by-inheritance.
The visual trappings are as good as it gets. Christina Poddubiuk’s rendering of the upper-class family parlour, with its pale green walls, period light fixtures and aptly austere portraits, is at one with the comings and goings of the indefatigable Doctor (Michael Ball) and his two sisters Lavinia Penniman (Donna Belleville) and Elizabeth Almond (Norah McLellan). But come for the drama stay for the gowns! While the untrustworthy men bumble about in bland waistcoats, their women—most especially Dr. Sloper’s Pygmalion-lite daughter and heir apparent, Catherine (Tara Rosling)—swish about the set in reams of fabric: blush-crimson red, Mourners-“R”-Us black (tastefully embellished with lace, of course) and a frothy French frock that belies the unanimously unloved creature within its seams.
The wee bits of solo piano music (yet the off-stage spinet sounds far too modern, staining the otherwise detail-rich façade)—notably Chopin’s Prelude in B Minor subtly reinforce Catherine’s shortcomings (her died-in-childbirth mother was an accomplished musician whose only offspring is denied harp lessons due to a bad ear) and the perpetual solitude shared by the older generation even as they know best.
As the curtain rises, life in Sloper Manor is revealed. The good Doctor has just brought another life into the world and inadvertently reflects on his own: “Such beautiful little creatures. … Why don’t they grow up that way?,” he asks the perpetually congenial maid Maria (Krista Colosimo, in need of an ounce of relaxation and a half-cup of flow to more effectively contrast her mistress). Widow Penniman slips in for the sherry hour; brother and sister bemoan their collective efforts in finding Catherine a suitable man—preferably someone “clever.”
From her first entrance, Rosling exudes the look of high society’s unwanted belle (her radiant beauty is nicely foiled by a virgin-severe hair bun). But the moment she speaks, the concern is switched from social shyness to cognitive impairment. Director Joseph Ziegler lets his heroine declaim her lines a nickel short of impediment. Later, when having it out with her cruel, unfeeling relatives or savouring a large piece of revenge biscuits herself, the change in delivery comes across more as a miracle that requires a trip to Church than the metamorphosis from despised misfit to last-laugh victor. Similar to the variants between the script and the novel, this major departure from the tone of the original only serves to diffuse James’ message.
Newcomer to the Sloper Family Feud is Morris Townsend (Mike Shara) a very distant cousin of banker-to-be Arthur Townsend (the always affable Harry Judge) who has recently married Catherine’s cousin Marian (Jessica Lowry). Morris is just back from squandering a slight inheritance in Europe, even as his landlord-who-takes-no-rent sister, Mrs. Montgomery (Catherine McGregor), endeavours to raise five “pennies” on her own. Still, Morris tutors his nephews and nieces “gratis,” in an attempt to earn his keep and their admiration.
Shara proves to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. He brings just enough sincerity to his protestations of undying love to the “thirty-thousand-a-year” wallflower to raise a modicum of doubt (before his backgammon-brandy-inspired boldness with Lavinia on the eve of Dr. Sloper and Catherine’s return from an enforced six-month “cooling off” sojourn to Europe) confirms that he is as base as all handsome fortune hunters.
The hapless Doctor not only arrives a day early, upsetting the elopement plan, but has the audacity to have, literally, caught his death of cold. This predicament adds one failed joke (the stethoscope as a flute) but provides the metaphor of the play when the failing, lonely, wretched physician, holding the aforementioned new medical apparatus brought in duty free from Paris opines “It’s for listening in hearts. … I wish I had it years ago.”
And so the grumpy old man soon expires to meet his maker, unable to cure himself of his unconscionable brutality and loveless soul. Sadly, Catherine has learned those lessons well and promises, for once, to rise above her father’s degree of “excellence.” JWR