There’s a terrific scene in the second act of The Heiress at the Jungle Theater, when the young wag Morris (John Catron) plays backgammon in a well-appointed parlor with Aunt Penniman (Wendy Lehr). The two are expecting the return the next day of Catherine Sloper (Kate Guentzel), with whom Morris is ostensibly in love; Morris helps himself to Catherine’s dad’s brandy and cigars, the younger man and older woman in a sweet, platonic, conspiratorial huddle based on the illusion that Morris is anything but manipulative and money-grubbing in his romancing of titular heiress Catherine—and Catron selling the idea that Morris might even believe there’s a streak of honest emotion beneath his rather unctuous machinations.
It’s good stuff, and one wishes there was a bit more of it. Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s well-proportioned play adapts Henry James’s novel Washington Square, which was so straightforwardly entertaining that James himself had a hard time dealing with it in retrospect in his later days (artists being notoriously poor evaluators of their own work). James’s Catherine is in a fascinating lineage with his Isabel Archer from Portrait of a Lady and Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth: American women of a bygone upper class, constrained by gender convention yet living out thorny dilemmas driven by material wealth.
Catherine’s distinction is that she is supposed to be homely, shy, and thus unmarriageable. Guentzel lends her convincing awkwardness that evolves into self-possessed steel as she begins to develop a sense of worth via Morris’s romancing and against the relentless put-downs of her physician father (Jeffrey Hatcher, whose portrait doesn’t quite hit all dimensions but who also refrains from softening the edges of a parent whose unflattering appraisal of his offspring is based in realism—it’s 19th-century tough love, damn the self-esteem movement to come).
The problem here is that Catherine is the only character given much space in which to grow (grow she does, though: Guentzel’s icy calm in the final scenes is a well-earned and convincing destination). Morris, the crucial other half of the equation, could be the worst sort of cad—the kind who might actually think he isn’t one—but we’re not afforded enough angles on his behavior in the storyline to draw more than the most rudimentary conclusions. Catron, with a smart and sympathetic presence, manages to hint at elements of Morris that leaven the straight-ahead villainy that perhaps drove James’s own criticism of his novel.
Well, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and every one of us has a lifetime to put the proper shine on our own motivations. Ultimately, we have here a finely crafted piece of theater (directed by Bain Boehlke, who also designs an exquisite set) that slides past on its own logic, a tickling piece of entertainment and rock-solid storytelling—we might not feel all the complexities suggested but, like Catherine herself, we can be seduced by the surfaces and feel just fine about it.