A different portrait of a lady: EPAC presents ‘The Heiress’

By on March 23, 2016
The cast of EPAC’s “The Heiress,” is (from back left, counter clockwise) Andi Hill, Lisa Harris, Elizabeth Pattey, Kenneth Seigh, Robin Payne, Preston Cuer, Rachel Faust, Brian Viera, and Megan Riggs. The show runs through March 26. Purchase tickets at ephrataperformingartscenter.com. (Photo by Suzette Wenger)

The cast of EPAC’s “The Heiress,” is (from back left, counter clockwise) Andi Hill, Lisa Harris, Elizabeth Pattey, Kenneth Seigh, Robin Payne, Preston Cuer, Rachel Faust, Brian Viera, and Megan Riggs. The show runs through March 26. Purchase tickets at ephrataperformingartscenter.com. (Photo by Suzette Wenger)

This may be a bit of a shock, coming from someone who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing; someone whose collegiate mentor was twice removed from Robert Frost; someone who toured the English countryside and London, visiting the actual places described in the collected works of Thomas Hardy.

I could never stand Henry James.

I first suffered through his writing on my own accord, while at sea. I read “The Portrait of a Lady” and nearly jettisoned the tome into the Atlantic, frustrated at the novel’s ending. In college I was forced to read “Daisy Miller,” and as the majestic tale unwound I found myself braced for an ending where I would want to toss the book in the trash. And I did. I had had enough of James … until last Thursday evening.

Twenty years after swearing off one of America’s most heralded writers, I found myself sitting in the Sharadin Bigler Theatre for the EPAC opening of “The Heiress.” Originally appearing on Broadway in 1947, “The Heiress” was penned by Ruth and August Goetz and is based on James’ 1880 novel “Washington Square.” A scant, but enthusiastic crowd attended the opening of “The Heiress” on Thursday, March 17. Directed by Edward Fernandez, the run for this show is short-lived by design, and will be presented over two weeks.

She who stands to inherit the fortunes of her parents is Catherine Sloper (Megan Riggs), a socially timid young lady growing into the societal standards of her era (the 1850s) under the eye of her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ken Seigh). Content behind the work of her sampler, Catherine has no desire to entertain guests, let alone suitors. Yet, a suitor calls when her cousin Marian (Rachel Faust) and newly engaged fiancée Arthur Townsend (Preston Cuer) appear with his brother, Morris Townsend (Brian Viera).

Morris is the opposite of Catherine; he is flirtatious, well spoken, and charming. Catherine is caught up in his charms, though not easily. Her timidity and perceived weakness frustrates the doctor, who deep down loathes the girl for being the reason for her mother’s death — she died giving birth to Catherine. Yet, the father does not trust the brash Morris and understands his affection may be closer to Catherine’s annual inheritance of $30,000 than to her heart. As polite as society will justify, Dr. Sloper forbids their arrangement to be married.

The trials of the heart and the joviality of tongue-in-cheek civility plays out in the company of Lavinia Penniman (Elizabeth Pattey), the doctor’s meddling, childless, and widowed sister; and the housekeeper Maria (Andi Jo Hill), who is as much a fixture in the house as is the decanter of brandy. The cast of the Heiress is rounded out by Mrs. Montgomery (Lisa Harris), Morris’ sister, who is living a poor life with five children — ultimately she is called to the house by the doctor to garner the true intentions of Morris — and Elizabeth Almond (Robin Payne), the doctor’s other sister and mother of Marian.

The star of the show is the heiress herself, Catherine. Riggs’ ability to turn emotions on and off is key, even when as subtle as transforming slight happiness to veiled nervousness. Her character must have emotion, a range of sentiment unparalleled to anyone else on the stage — it is Catherine’s nature — and Riggs portrays the feelings of this young woman perfectly.

Captivating the crowd is the robust performance of Seigh as Dr. Sloper. His ability to wind the thoughts and words of his character forces theater-goers to hang onto his every word — as if caught in a tempest. He revealed a character with a stern shell, yet with a broken core. At times he is lovable and at others despised. Seigh’s talent as a dramatic actor should be championed, and this performance his guerdon!

The two-act performance is played out on a single set, the beautiful interior of the Washington Square home. Scenic designer Mike Rhoads and assistant Jill Kurtz have once again transformed the EPAC theatre into another world. The scene is inviting, credible, and effective.

Now that I have gotten beyond my disdain for Henry James, I had to wonder how much of the author (via playwrights) lay in the pages of “The Heiress.” The argument of the validity of authorial intent is one of the reasons I was pushed away from James and his contemporaries. Henry James was born at 2 Washington Place, New York City, in 1843. The building is now home to the Andre and Bella Meyer Hall of Physics at New York University. Even structures made of stone can change. EPAC has, although slightly, helped to alter my opinion of a great American writer.

The preeminent literary critic Donald Hall writes, “Everybody likes ‘Washington Square,’ even the denigrators of Henry James.”

If I were so bold, I would second the remark. EPAC’s “The Heiress” is flawless in capturing the beauty of an American classic. The story of love lost and strength gained resonates through history to this modern era, fixating the audience not only on the characters onstage, but also the characters in our own lives.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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