Nov 1, 2012
Fast-rising film star Jessica Chastain has earned acclaim in a wide range of roles recently, and the part that brings this Juilliard graduate back to the stage is surely as daunting as any of them.
In a new Broadway revival of The Heiress (three stars out of four), Chastain is cast as Catherine Sloper, a young woman living with her wealthy, accomplished, intimidating father in mid-19th-century Manhattan. We’re introduced to Catherine largely through the perspective of Dr. Austin Sloper, a widower who views his only child as plain and dull — the polar opposite of the graceful, vivacious woman who died giving birth to her.
The rather musty play, inspired by the Henry James novel Washington Square, suggests that Catherine deserves better than the doctor’s diagnosis; yet it presents her, at least until the final scenes, as more a pitiable figure than an admirable one.
Yet in this revival, which opened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, it is clearly Chastain’s intention to lend more depth to her character. The actress doesn’t do this by emphasizing her physical charms; to the contrary, the swan-like beauty deftly channels her inner duckling, her flat voice and stiff, awkward gestures at first suggesting a dim light trying to fade into her surroundings.
Catherine finds a spark, though, in Morris Townsend, a suspiciously avid suitor played by Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey). Meeting Catherine, whose cousin is engaged to his brother, at the Sloper residence, Stevens’ Morris seems overeager and earnest; though we glean early on that he doesn’t have a proper job and has already run through his inheritance, those unfamiliar with the story may be hard-pressed to determine whether Morris sees Catherine as a meal ticket or is truly drawn to her lack of airs and almost painful sincerity.