Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Martha in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Sally in Cabaret.
Cast the right actress in one of these roles and you’re sure to get a brilliant performance, the kind that gets nominated for an Oscar or Tony, and maybe even wins. It happened to Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh, to Uta Hagen and Elizabeth Taylor, to Natasha Richardson and Liza Minnelli.


The same is true for an actress who plays Catherine in The Heiress, the role that won Olivia de Havilland the Oscar and Cherry Jones the Tony.
The latest leading lady to put her own stamp on the awkward, romantic, timid, love struck, and ultimately vengeful young heiress is Kirsten Potter, currently starring in the Ruth and Augustus Goetz adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square at South Coast Repertory.
Potter’s performance can be described in a single word: WOW!
Catherine, for those who’ve seen neither the 1949 film nor the 1995 Broadway revival (which also played at the Ahmanson), is the only child of the wealthy Dr. August Sloper. Rapidly approaching 30, Catherine is still single, something not at all uncommon in 2008 but the kiss of lifelong spinsterhood in 1850 New York City.
We gather that something is amiss in the Sloper home from the play’s opening moments, when Dr. Sloper advises the parlor maid to have a lot of children.  “Give yourself more than a single chance,” he tells her. 
Catherine, Dr. Sloper’s only child, suffers from painful shyness.  “The last time I had guests she disappeared into the pantry four successive times,” the doctor tells his sister, Mrs. Penniman, who is one of the few people around whom Catherine forgets her timidity.  To her aunt, Catherine can recount how she was able to tell some foolish women who didn’t know the difference between veal and beef that veal comes “from a nursing calf, and just when it is the most adorable, most touching … we eat it!” Yet later, when Mrs. Penniman asks her to repeat the story to good doctor, she can scarcely get a word out.
No wonder, with a father like Dr. Sloper.  What kind of parent would see his daughter dressed in her late mother’s favorite color and tell her, “But Catherine, you mother was dark–she dominated the color.”
When Catherine’s cousin Marian and her fiancé Arthur arrive with an unexpected guest, Arthur’s handsome cousin Morris, Catherine is worse than shy; she becomes positively graceless.  “Are you as great a tease as your cousin, Miss Sloper?” Morris asks her, and instead of flirting back, all Catherine can utter is a blunt, “No.” End of conversation.
Morris, it turns out, is a distant cousin who has “used up” his very small inheritance and now lives with his older sister, unlike the very wealthy Catherine, who already receives $10,000 a year from her mother’s estate and is set to inherit another $20,000 a year upon her father’s death. (That adds up to almost $750,000 per year in today’s money.)
When Morris begins to pursue a courtship with Catherine, the young woman is in seventh heaven, her father not so. Clearly, Morris Townsend is after Catherine’s money. For what other reason would the man be interested in such a dull girl?
So as not to spoil the element of surprise for anyone unfamiliar with either the James novel or its adaptation as a play or movie, nothing more will be revealed here, but whether you are seeing The Heiress with no idea what will happen next, or watching it and waiting eagerly for what you know is coming, the play (particularly in a production as fine as this one) has nary a dull moment, despite its two and half hour running time.

Director Martin Benson made a fine choice in casting Potter as Catherine, though not the most obvious. Like a young Jane Fonda, the actress excels at bringing strong women to life, such as the married man’s mistress who is more than a match for his wife in the play Honour, which won her a Drama Critics Circle Award nomination. As Catherine, the powerful personality usually evident in a Potter performance disappears completely (at least until the play’s justly famous final scene). She is endearingly, embarrassingly awkward, gawky, clumsy … and prone to put her foot in her mouth. We are as incredulous as she is when Morris (especially as incarnated by the very good-looking Michael A. Newcomer) comes a calling, and ever more so when he blurts out to her, “I think of nothing else!  I am possessed by you!” The joy on Potter’s face is palpable, and it is a joy to witness the way she blossoms whenever Morris is around, even though we can’t help wondering if her happiness is based on a lie.
As Morris, Newcomer is a welcome newcomer to Los Angeles area stages. Not only is the actor leading man handsome, he conveys such sincerity that it’s no wonder Catherine believes his declarations of love.  We do too, or would, at least, were it not for that pesky inheritance.
As Catherine’s father, Tony Amendola gives a powerhouse performance as a man who has never forgiven his daughter for not living up to her mother’s memory.  When Amendola tells another character that Catherine is “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise” who “killed her mother in getting born,” the effect is devastating.
The rest of the cast is equally splendid, beginning with the marvelous Lynn Milgrim as Mrs. Pennimen, Catherine’s dithering but good-hearted aunt (and Morris’s ally in his courtship of Catherine).  Karen Hensel is wonderful as Morris’s sister Mrs. Montgomery, who is unable to deny Dr. Sloper’s accusation that Catherine is a victim of her brother’s “avariciousness.”  Rebecca Mozo makes for a lovely and exuberant Marian, Amelia White is very good as Marian’s mother as is Branden McDonald as her fiancé.  Jennifer Parsons stands out as the maid Maria (pronounced Mariah).
As might be expected in a South Coast Rep production, The Heiress is gorgeous to look at.  Thomas Buderwitz’s elegantly designed (and spacious) 1850s Washington Square front parlor is beautifully lit by Tom Ruzika. Vincent Olivieri, besides composing mood-setting original music, created the sound design, which includes some very realistic (and significant) horse and carriage clatter. Maggie Morgan’s period costumes are both elegant and beautiful, with the deliberate exception of two: Catherine’s red and gold gown which is oh-so wrong for her, and a later gown which couldn’t look more disheveled.
There’s no better professional theater in Southern California than South Coast Repertory. Whether it is the local premiere of an exciting new play, such as the recent Dead Man’s Cell Phone, or the revival of a Broadway classic like The Heiress, the words “South Coast Rep” are a virtual guarantee of a thrilling evening of theater.  The Heiress is, I am happy to report, no exception.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
October 26, 2008
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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