Must personal growth be accompanied by sharp emotional pain?
That question arises from director Bain Boehlke’s heartbreaking production of “The Heiress,” which opened Friday at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.
The well-acted and beautifully designed drama holds a viewer from the moment the curtain rises on the breathtaking set, also by Boehlke, to the very end, when the title character, portrayed with sublime sympathy by Kate Guentzel, resolutely carries a light up a flight of stairs.
That light is a symbol of her development in a drama that could be subtitled “an education in cruelty.”
Adapted by the wife-and-husband team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz from Henry James’ short novel “Washington Square,” the 1947 play orbits Catherine Sloper (Guentzel), her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Jeffrey Hatcher) and Morris Townsend (John Catron), a charming bon vivant.
Catherine’s mother died while giving birth to her, a tragedy for which her father blames her. If Dr. Sloper, who uses truth as a very sharp weapon, treats his daughter with contempt, he may not want to harm her so much as arm her for a cruel world. She, in turn, behaves like a bird with a broken wing, deferring to him at every turn.
When sweet-talking Morris comes a-courting, Dr. Sloper is highly suspicious. He wants plain-looking Catherine to see that Morris is only after the inheritance she got from her mother. But Catherine is so taken by Morris’ attention she plans to elope. Things come to a head when Dr. Sloper, who has taken ill, threatens to disinherit her from the sum she’s to receive from him.
In his sterling staging, Boehlke never gives away the ending, even though you sort of see it coming. Guentzel plays the title role with such understanding and compassion, you cannot help but root for her. She is masterful in the role.
Catron, also, is charming. If his character is putting on an act, it’s something that he does to convince not only Catherine, but also himself.
It took a minute for Hatcher, best known as a witty playwright, to subsume his eminent self and let the forbidding Sloper fully surface. Both actor and character share a dry wit. But Hatcher acquits himself well, showing us a doctor who does what he thinks he must to save the life of a daughter he thinks of like a patient.
“The Heiress,” whose telling is amplified by Sean Healey’s clever sound score and Amelia Cheever’s striking period costumes, has commendable performances all around. There are lovely moments by Twin Cities stage legend Wendy Lehr, who plays giddy cheerleader Aunt Penniman, and Jennifer Blagen as primly graceful Elizabeth Almond. Charity Jones is crisply winning as Morris’ sister, Mrs. Montgomery, while Paris Hunter Paul imbues Morris’ brother, Arthur, with lightness in a production that is as aching as it is luminous