by Blanka Boschnak

by Ruth & Augustus Goetz
Directed by Susan Cox
The Vancouver Playhouse until April 12, 1997

The Heiress is an adaptation of Henry James' novel Washington Square, a romantic drama about the life of Catherine Sloper (Wendy Noel), a young woman coming of age in the 1850's . She is the only daughter of an affluent widower, Dr. Austin Sloper (William Webster), who has provided her with all the best things in life including an education and all the freedom that wealth can provide. The doctor is a man who admires beautiful, funny, witty and elegant women-- qualities he found in his dead wife but not in his daughter. Pushed aside by her father, Catherine is offered a chance at love when a young suitor, Morris Townsend (Alan Van Sprang), comes knocking at the door. But can anyone love an awkward, socially inept young woman such as Catherine?

Wendy Noel was superb in the role of Catherine. She was so convincing as a young girl who laughed at all the wrong times and said all the wrong things. I could not but help empathize with her. A natural born hostess she is not. She knocks over a table and hides in the pantry because she is uncomfortable with chit- chat when company comes to pay a visit. However, Catherine does come to shine as the central character in this play with the audience cheering her on as she finally demonstrates some of that wit her father so admired in women.

William Webster does an equally fabulous job as the father who is just looking out for the well-being of his daughter, but forgets about her feelings and needs in the process. Dr. Sloper possesses an Orson Welles quality in him: strong, sophisticated but somewhat detached and sarcastic. He commands respect from the audience and sympathy at the same time, for he is truly a man who has suffered many losses in his life.

Special attention must be drawn to the costumes, set design, lighting and sound in this production. Everything worked together beautifully from a fully functioning gas fireplace and chandelier to dresses for all occasions. The opening scene of the play is absolutely breath-taking, as the silhouette of the maid slowly enters the stage, holding a light and illuminating the set behind her ever so slightly. She enters the main room of the house and slowly lights the fireplace and the individual wicks in the chandelier high above, and with each step the audience is stirred as Sloper’s home comes to life. The final touch comes as the scrim rolls up to reveal the glowing light and warmth of the room. The lights and sounds are so subtle in setting the mood for the play. I was impressed by the splendor of it all.

This is a well-cast play and a wonderful way for director Susan Cox to end her tenure as the Artistic Director of The Playhouse . The rapport, chemistry and witty conversations give the play the fast pace of a romantic comedy more so than a drama. The social blunders of Catherine are funny and universally appealing. I really enjoyed myself and as did everyone, I’m sure, in the audience.