Melodrama, if it’s not handled correctly, can grow tedious quickly — particularly in three-hour doses. In the right hands, however, it can stay touching and compelling throughout. Hands like those of Henry James, who wrote 1880’s Washington Square, or Seema Sueko, who directed Arena Stage’s The Heiress, which is based the novella, or Laura C. Harris, who plays her leading lady, Catherine Sloper, a shy and awkward (but wealthy and rousable) young woman living with her physician father.
The Heiress, going on now until March 10 at Arena Stage, tells the story of our Miss Sloper as she slowly learns that essential truth: Neither husband nor father can ever truly fill the hole in your own heart.
Under Sueko’s direction — and with the help of a deliberately all-female crew — the failed romance and domestic drama of James’s tight, tough story gets spun into imperative drama. The performances are some of the best I’ve seen on stage this year, particularly from Harris, James Whalen as her callous-but-wise father, and Nancy Robinette as a meddlesome-but-well-intentioned aunt. These are actors who know how stretch into a role, teaching the audience who they are even as they show character growth.
Once again, it falls on me to remind D.C. theatre audiences that “turn off your cell phone” warnings do, in fact, apply to you. At Thursday night’s premiere no fewer than five (!) loud rings or alarms went off. All five of those people looked selfish, thoughtless, and, frankly, stupid. Don’t be stupid like them: Silence the damn phone.
Such intrusions are particularly painful for a period piece. Costume designer Ivania Stack and lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani have done a terrific job with their conjuring-the-19th-century tricks, too. The performers must all have been very, very excited by their outfits, and the lights bring to mind Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series, painting the set in multiple seasons, times of day, and sources.
In the Fichandler Stage’s in-the-round space, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s most important task as set designer might be not construction, but the selection and placement of furniture and props; she, too, deserves applause. Pretty sure my grandmother had a couple of those pieces.
The Heiress isn’t for everyone. The melodrama lands thick on the ground and stays there, like Minnesota snow. But if you’re a fan of that kind of thing, grab your cross-country skis. There are some lovely views to enjoy here.