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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Heiress

Catherine, you must take hold of yourself!— Aunt Penniman
"No, no, Morris must take hold of me, Morris must make it up to me, Morris must love me for all those who didn't.—Catherine
The Heires is an American classic and so is the Pasadena Playhouse which first produced it in 1950. One might say the same for the leading man Richard Chamberlain who plays Dr. Sloper. All three are timeless.

Director Damaso Rodriguez keeps the pace lively and the play, written in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted from Henry James' novel, Washington Square, shows no signs of aging. Perhaps because it's set in pre-Civil War 1850 we more willingly suspend our disbelief but the pain and the passion are blazingly contemporary.

It's the story of Catherine Sloper, the doctor's daughter (Heather Tom),. She's a distressingly plain girl who has the misfortune to be not only the daughter of a beauty but of a dead one, whose every trait is idolized by the widower down to the color of her scarlet hair ribbons. Catherine, for whom the word overkill might have been invented, has a whole dress made in this color in which she makes her Act I entrance. The tone of bitter mockery behind clenched teeth. hiding behind a smile with which the doctor greets her may be lost on Catherine — but not on the audience.

Aunt Lavinia (Julia Duffy), a petite blonde with a carrying voice, is spending the winter at Dr. Sloper's request. He's at his wit's end with Catherine who, when company comes either clings to his arm or makes excuses for trips to the pantry. "Four times!" sighs the doctor.

Into this wintry discontent comes Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) with his cousin Arthur (Chris Reinacher) and the distressingly beautiful Marion (Anneliese van der Pol), the doctor's neice. Without a brain in her head, she's so obviously the lovely daughter the doctor wanted and he fatuously shows it. More disturbing are the obvious compliments Morris keeps lobbing at Catherine. Only his good looks keep them from being obnoxious. They make the good doctor shudder, however, and later, when Morris has already won an acceptance to his proposal from the starry-eyed Catherine, he calls the young man an idler and no good. He wants to take his daughter away to Europe for six months and Morris, sure of his hold on the inexperienced girl's emotions, urges her to go.

When she returns, still besotted with Morris, she's determined to run away with him. He agrees but, to his dismay, learns she has defied her father and forfeited her inheritence. In a devastating midnight scene which lets Tom pull out all the stops, we watch with Catherine for the boy who will never come. But that's not all! Oh, no. Catherine has a chance for revenge and in the last act, she takes it.

Heather Tom plays Heather, the brilliantly written part which shows why she'll never fulfill any of her father's dreams. "Wonderful", her adjective of choice, is applied to everything, but she grows and matures after her trip to Paris. "You've found a tongue!" says her wondering father and though her vocabulary is spare, her eye is sharp. With astute pacing and emphasis, Tom gets her laughs and also displays with crystal clarity an insight into this character's soul.

As the doctor, Chamberlain is sophisticated and worldly. His still good looks and poise are in strong contrast to his daughter and his accent is excellent. He knows where his laughs are and nails them. Although The Heiress isn't thought of as a comedy, there are plenty of laughs and good actors know where to find them.

Julia Duffy is splendid as flighty Aunt Penniman, a necessary bright spirit. Gigi Bermingham turns in a solid performance as her sister Elizabeth Almond.

John Iacovelli's scenic design is simple but effective, in keeping with the period. Leah Piehl's costumes, though anything but simple, almost steal the show.

Not many theaters revive a play they did in 1950 and fewer still with this level of success. Congratulations to Artistic Director Sheldon Epps who has steered the Playhouse shrewdly and kept it from sinking.

Title: The Heiress
Playwrights: Ruth and Augustus Goetz
Director: Damaso Rodriguez
Cast: Dr. Austin Sloper (Richard Chamberlain), Catherine (Heather Tom), Lavinia Penniman (Julia Duffy), Elizabeth Almond (Gigi Bermingham), Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs), Arthur Townsend (Chris Reinacher), Maria (Elizabeth Tobias), Marian Almond (Anneliese van der Pol), Mrs. Montgomery (Jill Van Velzer)
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino, Pasadena. Reservations: 626-356-7529.
When: April 24-May 20, 2012.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on April 29.
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