I have to admit that I am not a fan of Henry James. So it is a mark of the success of Brenda White’s direction of the Centenary Players’ production of The Heiress that, by the end of it, I had decided that I would have to read Washington Square, the book that is its source, to find out just how much Henry James himself takes us into the hearts and minds of the main characters. Was the father, Dr Austin Sloper, really as flat, cold and dismissive as played by George W. Bush lookalike Lori Webb? The answer, incidentally, is quite possibly “yes”: by a coincidence, in The Age on the same Saturday (22 September) was an article by Terry Lane about another Henry James book, The Portrait of a Lady, in which James’ writing is described as “so cold. So devoid of fervor of any kind, neither love nor violence. Everything and everybody so exaggeratedly formal in their behaviour and conversation”.
In this play, however, against Lori Webb’s sustained coldbloodedness, Laura Wilde as his daughter Catherine showed the gradual and temporary emergence of a warm and passionate soul yearning for love and ultimately capable of a vengeful bitterness before shutting herself back down into what may be a typical James’ character (I will have to find that out for myself). Certainly, her dilemma appears to represent an iterative theme in his books, of “a dire warning against marriage. Young ladies of wealth will fall into the clutches of villainous fortune hunters”. While this description, once again, comes from Terry Lane’s view of The Portrait of a Lady, it is in one way and another very much the concern of almost all of the characters in The Heiress.
In keeping with the American origin of this play, all of the actors worked hard at sustaining creditable American accents. And, mostly, they were successful. Occasionally, however (and with the exception of Laura Wilde who has a Canadian background), the ends of some speeches trailed away from the crispness of the accent, and – thereby – lost some of their punch and sounded a bit tired. At times, also, there was an element of perfunctoriness in the interactions between the characters. The development of the relationship between Catherine and Morris, for example, was so minimalist emotively as to be unconvincing; and Lori Webb was challenged by the demands of the sick Dr Sloper’s response to Catherine’s emotional outburst: of how to play tired without sounding bland.
Overall, however, all of the performances were very solid, with sound support from Pam Alick as the humanising force of Aunt Lavinia Penniman, Martin Blum as dubious suitor Morris Townsend, Samantha Porter (who managed to bring life and presence to the traditionally thankless role of the maid, Maria), Dr Sloper’s “other sister” and her family, played by Margaret Ferry, Lola Major and Joshua Ganim, and Morris’s sister Mrs Montgomery (Laura Bowles).
The action was played out against a single, and excellently designed set that gave the solidity of a comfortable middle-class sitting room. Godfrey Bathurst and Sue Watson’s attention to detail was born out by the slight but telling modification to the selection of pictures hanging on the walls, after The Heiress came into her own. Throughout, also, the characters and especially the females wore a splendid range of costumes and hats produced by Pat Bancroft and Judith Caradine.
It was, altogether, a pleasure to get drawn into the drama of a traditional play of a bygone era, even though it highlighted some of the painfully oppressive restrictions on women and between people in ways that are, thankfully, now mostly history. And there was, also, a delightful nostalgia about the theatre that is the home of the Centenary Players otherwise a community hall of a style and vintage that is very reminiscent of the church halls of yesteryear, which some of the older audiences will remember as though it were yesterday. The sense of community from that, and from the local audience, is a precious commodity that we would do well to value and to support, or risk loosing altogether.
On a final, musical note, and another coincidence, the Beatles song that came up on the CD player on my drive home was the aptly titled “Can’t buy me love”.