Star-Studded 'Heiress' Considers A Woman's Worth

Oct 28, 2012
Originally published on October 28, 2012 8:58 am

A much-anticipated revival of The Heiress, a 1947 play based on the Henry James novella Washington Square, opens in New York on Thursday. It marks the Broadway debut of two accomplished young stars — Jessica Chastain, the Academy Award nominee from The Help, and Dan Stevens, from the hit television series Downton Abbey.

On the surface, the story of The Heiress seems simple enough — a wealthy young woman in Victorian New York is torn between her controlling father and a young, penniless suitor. Is the father being overprotective? Is the young man just a cad? But there's much more going on, says director Moisés Kaufman.

"Henry James — because his brother, William James, was a psychologist — he really understood a lot about human psychology and he got so much so right so early on," Kaufman says. He describes the revival as "very Jamesian" in its darkness and ambiguity.

"Henry James doesn't write about villains and saints," Kaufman says. "He writes about people with flesh and blood. And one of the things that we kept talking about in this play was that those kind of ambiguities make the production richer."

Hollywood star Jessica Chastain plays the heiress, Catherine, and David Straithairn plays her father, Dr. Austin Sloper. The petite red-haired Chastain is all but unrecognizable in a tangled wig of frizzy brown hair and a jangle of awkward mannerisms, playing an only child trying desperately to get her father's approval. Chastain says she was attracted to the role because of the character's arc.

"The story's very relevant because throughout history, women have been defined by the men in their life," she says. "And Catherine, in the beginning of the play is defined by her father and then she's defined by her suitor and at the end, she sets boundaries and she's defined by herself. And I'm really moved by that."

The man who wants Catherine is the charming, handsome, but nearly destitute Morris Townsend. Dan Stevens says he didn't want to play Morris as some sort of mustache-twirling villain, only out to get the heiress' $30,000 a year.

"This is true of a lot of Henry James characters, that the two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive; that you can be in love with somebody and also with their things and their lifestyle and the luxury which they inhabit," he says. "So that's, you know, an interesting thing to look at and to play with."

Kaufman says the script, by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, focuses on the ideas of truth and honesty, but in very much the manner of 1850s New York.

"The way that they deal with each other ... has much more to do with Victorian propriety than it has to do with contemporary psychology," Kaufman says. "And by that I mean, that there's a way in which they're very frank and a way in which they are not ... in which they really keep lying to each other, for a variety of reasons, some of which are very good reasons."

The play reaches one of its climaxes when the doctor bluntly tells Catherine why he is so opposed to her engagement to Morris and his own doubts about her self worth.

"I have been reasonable with you," Sloper says to his daughter. "I have tried not to be unkind, but now it is time for you to realize the truth: How many women do you think [Morris] might have had in this town? ... 100 are prettier, 1,000 more clever, but you have one virtue which outshines them all. ... Your money."

"It is devastating, when your whole life has been about ... [pleasing] your father," Chastain says. "But also, for me, I imagine there's a great sense of freedom; so, to actually know: OK, my instinct was right. He doesn't like me. Now, after knowing this, how can I move on in my life?"

How Catherine Sloper moves on with her life turns out to be both heartbreaking and surprising.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Next week, a much-anticipated revival of "The Heiress" opens in New York. It's a 1947 play based on the Henry James novella "Washington Square." The show marks the Broadway debut of two accomplished, young stars: Jessica Chastain, the Academy Award nominee from "The Help"; and Dan Stevens, of the hit television series "Downton Abbey."

Jeff Lunden brings us the story.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: On the surface, the story of "The Heiress" seems simple enough. A wealthy, young woman in Victorian New York is torn between her controlling father and a young, penniless suitor. Is the father being overprotective? Is the young man just a cad? There's much more going on, says director Moises Kaufman.

MOISES KAUFMAN: Henry James - because his brother, William James, was a psychologist - he really understood a lot about human psychology. And he got so much so right, so early on.

LUNDEN: Kaufman describes the revival as very Jamesian, in its darkness and ambiguity.

KAUFMAN: Henry James doesn't write about villains and saints. He writes about people with flesh and blood. And one of the things that we kept talking about, in this play, was that those kinds of ambiguities make the production richer.

LUNDEN: Hollywood star Jessica Chastain plays the heiress, Catherine; and David Strathairn, her father, Dr. Austin Sloper. The petite, red-haired Chastain is all but unrecognizable in a tangled wig of frizzy, brown hair and a jangle of awkward mannerisms; playing an only child trying desperately to get her father's approval. Chastain says she was attracted to the role because of the character's arc.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: This story's very relevant because throughout history, women have been defined by the men in their life. And Catherine, in the beginning of the play, is defined by her father; and then, she's defined by her suitor. And at the end, she sets boundaries; and she's defined by herself. And I'm really moved by that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY REHEARSAL, "THE HEIRESS")

CHASTAIN: (as Catherine Sloper) Oh, father, don't you think he is the most beautiful man you have ever seen?

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

DAVID STRATHAIRN: (as Dr. Austin Sloper) He is very good-looking, my dear. But of course, you wouldn't let that sway you unduly.

CHASTAIN: (as Catherine Sloper) Oh, no, no. But that is what is so wonderful to me - that he should have everything, everything that a woman could want; and he wants me.

LUNDEN: The man who wants Catherine is the charming, handsome, but nearly destitute Morris Townsend. Dan Stevens says he didn't want to play Morris as some sort of moustache-twirling villain, only out to get the heiress' $30,000 a year.

DAN STEVENS: This is true of a lot of Henry James characters - that the two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive; that you can be in love with somebody, and also with their things and their lifestyle, and the luxury which they inhabit. And so that's, you know, an interesting thing to look at, and to play with. And so, you know, that's what we've tried to do with this Morris. (LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY REHEARSAL, "THE HEIRESS")

STEVENS: (as Morris Townsend) Dr. Sloper, I have fallen in love with your daughter. I am not the kind of man you would chose for her, and for good reason. I have committed every folly, every indiscretion, a young man can find to commit. I have squandered an inheritance. I have gambled. I have drunk unwisely. I admit; I confess. All these things...

STRATHAIRN: (as Dr. Austin Sloper) Mr. Townsend, I am acting in the capacity of a judge, not your confessor.

STEVENS: (as Morris Townsend) I tell you these things myself, Doctor, because I love Catherine - and because I have a great deal at stake.

STRATHAIRN: (as Dr. Austin Sloper) Then you have lost it.

LUNDEN: Director Moises Kaufman says the script, by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, focuses on the ideas of truth and honesty, but in very much the manner of 1850s New York.

KAUFMAN: The way that they deal with each other, and that they deal with truth and the truth about each other, has much more to do with Victorian propriety than it has to do with contemporary psychology. And by that, I mean that there's a way in which they're very frank, and a way in which they are not; in a way in which they really, keep lying to each other - for a variety of reasons, some of which are very good reasons.

LUNDEN: The play reaches one of its climaxes when the doctor bluntly tells Catherine why he is so opposed to her engagement to Morris, and his own doubts about her self-worth.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY REHEARSAL, "THE HEIRESS")

STRATHAIRN: (as Dr. Austin Sloper) I have been reasonable with you. I have tried not to be unkind. But now, it is time for you to realize the truth. How many women do you think he might have had in this town?

CHASTAIN: (as Catherine Sloper) He finds me pleasing.

STRATHAIRN: (as Dr. Austin Sloper) Yes, I'm sure he does. A hundred are prettier; a thousand more clever. But you have one virtue which outshines them all.

CHASTAIN: (as Catherine Sloper)What? What is that?

STRATHAIRN: (as Dr. Austin Sloper) Your money.

LUNDEN: Jessica Chastain.

CHASTAIN: It is devastating when your whole life has been about - to please your father. But then also, for me - I imagine there's a great sense of freedom. So to actually know, OK, my instinct was right; he doesn't like me. Now, after knowing this, how can I move on, in my life?

LUNDEN: And how Catherine Sloper moves on with her life, turns out to be both heartbreaking and surprising. "The Heiress" opens this Thursday evening, at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.