The Heiress may have reached the ripe old age of sixty-five, but you’d hardly know it from the latest revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 Broadway hit, adapted from Henry James’ classic novel Washington Square and currently engrossing and delighting audiences in equal measure at the Pasadena Playhouse.

 The Heiress in question is Miss Catherine Sloper (Heather Tom), the only child of the wealthy Dr. August Sloper (Richard Chamberlain) and hardly the apple of her father’s eye. Rapidly approaching thirty, Catherine has yet to walk down the aisle, or even receive a proposal of marriage, something not uncommon in 2012 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 parlor maid Maria (Elizabeth Tobias) to have a lot of children. “Give yourself more than a single chance,” he tells her.

Catherine, we soon learn, suffers from a painful, even crippling shyness. “The last time I had guests she disappeared into the pantry four successive times,” the doctor tells his sister Lavinia (Julia Duffy), 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!” Later, however, when Aunt Lavinia asks her to repeat the story to good doctor, she can scarcely get a word out.

 To paraphrase an old axiom, with a father like Dr. Sloper, who needs enemies? What kind of parent would see his daughter dressed in her late mother’s favorite color and tell her with a bluntness bordering on cruelty, “But Catherine, you mother was dark. She dominated the color.”

When Catherine’s cousin Marian (Anneliese van der Pol) and her fiancé Arthur (Chris Reinacher) arrive with an unexpected guest, Arthur’s handsome cousin Morris (Steve Coombs), 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 (Jill Van Velzer), 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 well over three quarters of a million dollars 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 (Olivia de Havilland won the Oscar for playing Catherine on the screen in 1949), 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.

Much of this comes from the crackerjack script the Goetzes wrote back in the late 1940s, though it certainly helps to have Dámaso Rodriguez in the director’s chair, once again proving himself as gifted at bringing the classics to fresh, modern life as he is at the edgy contemporary dramas his Furious Theatre Company is famous for. It helps too that Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps and casting director Michael Donovan, CSA, have come up with a cast of L.A.-based actors that can give any Broadway ensemble a run for their money.

 It’s hard to imagine another contemporary actress more right for Catherine than Tom, best known to audiences of daytime TV drama but one terrific stage actress as well. Camouflaging her own attractiveness under an unflattering hairdo and dour pout, Tom lets us see the broken child grown to unfulfilled adulthood, the pain at being so unloved by a heartless father, and the joy of discovering, or at least being made to believe, that she is indeed something special in the eyes of the man she adores.

Coombs, one of L.A. theater’s busiest and best young leading men since 2006’s A Picture Of Dorian Gray brought him to local attention, gives us a Morris who could turn any girl’s head, radiating charm, charisma, and sex appeal in equal measure.

Chamberlain, who has come a long, long way since his evenings as TV’s Dr. Kildare, resists the temptation to make Dr. Sloper anything but an insensitive beast of a father, a man capable of describing his daughter as “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise” who “killed her mother in getting born.” Ouch!

As she did in the Playhouse’s 2009 revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, the divine Duffy takes a role that countless other actresses have played before her (Miriam Hopkins and Frances Sternhagen among them) and made it indelibly, unforgettably her own. Those who recall Duffy as Newhart’s spoiled rich girl Stephanie Vanderkellen or Designing Women’s prissy Allison Sugarbaker are in for a particular treat at Duffy’s rich, multi-layered work.

A pair of local treasures, Gigi Bermingham as Catherine’s Aunt Elizabeth and Van Velzer as Morris’s sister, shine as brightly in featured roles as they do in their customary starring turns, and van der Pol, so marvelous in musical mode in Vanities a few years back, makes for a radiant Marian. Reinacher is fine too as van der Pol’s intended, and Tobias makes the very most of her moments as maid Maria (pronounced Mariah).

You will not find a more gorgeous scenic design in town than John Iacovelli’s elegant, detailed 1850 Washington Square residence nor more gorgeous period fashions than those designed by Leah Piehl for this production. Brian Gale’s lighting is a stunner too, with Doug Newell’s sound design combining mood-setting music and realistic effects. (There’s nothing more heartbreaking that a horse-drawn carriage that drives on past your door when you’re expecting it to stop.)  Heathyr Verhoef is production stage manager and Mary Michele Miner stage manager.

The Heiress is that rarity, a play that can be enjoyed equally by those experiencing it for the first time as by those seeing it for the umpteenth. For the former, there is the joy of discovery and surprise; for the latter, the pleasure in anticipating those oh-so satisfying moments we know are coming. The Heiress may have reached retirement age this year, but at the Pasadena Playhouse, she hardly looks her age at all.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
April 29, 2012
Photos: Jim Cox

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