When Jennifer Christa Palmer, as the awkward title character in Mad Cow Theatre’s The Heiress, hears family members joke about her marriage prospects, her eyes widen in terror like those of a deer caught in the lights of an oncoming car in the middle of a lonely road.
But Palmer’s Catherine Sloper is no coward, and Palmer’s Catherine Sloper is no fool. This plainspoken young woman – tall, graceful and endearing, but rendered mute by her father’s scorn – becomes another person by the end of The Heiress. And watching Palmer’s Catherine turn into a force to be reckoned with is this riveting production’s greatest joy.
In fact, there are many joys to be had in Mad Cow’s production, which was directed by Michael Marinaccio, with assistant direction by Tim Williams and elegant design by Cindy White (set), Jim Warren (costumes), John Hemphill (lighting) and John Valines (sound). Palmer and Mark Edward Smith, who plays Catherine’s steely doctor father, are but two of a nine-member cast who inhabit the Slopers’ sumptuous front parlor as if they were born to it. These people may speak the language of Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square, on which this play was based. But they’re as vibrant and idiosyncratic as anyone you meet.
In The Heiress, Catherine Sloper’s wealthy father and aunts have long since given up on her: Her father complains that she is neither poised nor clever, as her dead mother was, and her aunts – although they speak hopefully of a string of suitors – privately worry there will be no such thing. Catherine herself is caught. She lives to please her merciless father, but she fears she will never be the woman he wants her to be.
That all changes when her cousin Marian comes calling with her fiancé, Arthur Townsend, and his handsome cousin Morris, an eager young man who immediately treats Catherine as if she were the belle of Washington Square. Catherine is entranced. But when Dr. Sloper decides that Morris is a fortune-hunter, the older man sends the household into a vortex of anguish and mistrust.
The richness of these characters began with James’ novel (adapted gracefully for the Broadway stage in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz). And Marinaccio and his actors have listened to those characters’ hearts – paying plenty of attention to the niceties of wealthy 19th-century New York society but concentrating more on the needs and desires of people with plenty of quirks.
So Alexander Mrazek’s Arthur, onstage for just one scene, is a bit of a blowhard and a bit of a bore, and Elizabeth Judith, as Morris Townsend’s widowed sister, shows all the insight and care that her brother seems to lack. Marion C. Marsh is bright and sharp-tongued as Dr. Sloper’s sister Elizabeth; Sarah Jane Fridlich makes a loving but careless cousin Marian, and Samantha Faith O’Hare seems to have an inner life of her own as the Slopers’ lively, faithful maid.
As Morris, Steven Lane is so charming and glib that he has persuaded himself of his own good intentions, and as he presses his suit he becomes almost feverish in his zeal. And Karel K. Wright (Mrs. Higgins in the recent Mad Cow/Orlando Philharmonic My Fair Lady) is a stitch as Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia – warm, voluble and more foolish than anyone has a right to be.
Still, the battle lines in The Heiress fall between Catherine and Dr. Sloper, to whom the intelligent and gifted actor Mark Edward Smith brings a welcome touch of wry humor along with a blind obliviousness to the contents of his daughter’s heart. Dr. Sloper is a civilized monster, but Smith lets you see the very real wounds he carries, and you understand what he has lost.
And Palmer’s Catherine is a wonder, just as her Lizzie Curry was in Mad Cow’s The Rainmaker two seasons back – both of them bright and lovely (despite their families’ protestations to the opposite) and both not loved the way they need to be. As Catherine, Palmer stands slump-shouldered and beaten, until the steely woman inside her rises to embrace the anger the feels. This Catherine is her father’s daughter, and their impasse – absolute, heart-wrenching and utterly understandable – makes Mad Cow’s The Heiress the irresistible piece of drama it is.
What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s adaptation of the Henry James novel Washington Square.
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 22 (also, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2 and 16).
Cost: $24 and $26 general, $22 and $24 seniors and students, $15 Mondays.
Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1.
Photo: Steven Lane and Jennifer Christa Palmer.