The frizzy wig Jessica Chastain wears in the Broadway revival of The Heiress does her no favors — but that is exactly the point. Her Catherine Sloper is the plain Jane living in 1850 New York City who becomes tongue-tied in the company of everyone other than her disarming widowed aunt (Judith Ivey). Even her wealthy physician father (David Strathairn) thinks she’s a drip — ”a defenseless creature without a shred of poise” — who pales in comparison with his late wife, who died in childbirth and whom he’s idealized ever since. So when the penniless but socially adroit Morris Townsend comes courting, Dr. Sloper is naturally suspicious. But as played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens with a fluid American accent, Morris is no one-note cad. While he freely admits to having blown through his own inheritance and acknowledges the material benefits of a union with Catherine, he also seems to genuinely draw her out of her shell.
Director Moisés Kaufman’s crisp, first-rate production finds an admirable complexity in Ruth and Augustus Goetz’ 1947 drama, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square. In her Broadway debut, Chastain conveys social discomfort and awkwardness without veering into caricature. In the second act, as her mouse of a character gradually learns to roar, the uniquely American arc of this tragedy comes into sharper focus. Catherine has been so conditioned by rejection that she cannot imagine another outcome for herself. Worse, for one capable of radical change, she cannot entertain the possibility in others. A
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