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'The Heiress' at South Coast Repertory

Olivia de HavillandGreenwich VillageDeath

"The Heiress," Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz's adaptation of Henry James' "Washington Square," is the stage equivalent of a compulsive read. But for the drama to reach beyond its masterful plot into a suppler realm of human vision, it needs a production that's willing to attend to every ambiguous shade of gray.

South Coast Repertory’s revival -- solid, well-upholstered, relentlessly straightforward -- is not that production. Martin Benson's staging delivers the tale with the reliability of a Swiss watch. But there's little that is haunting about this interpretation. The melodramatic turns of the narrative are favored over its subtler contours.

"Washington Square" may not be Henry James' most ambitious novel, but it's executed to perfection. In this story of an awkward young woman who's pursued by a hard-up suitor whose motives are suspected by her wealthy doctor father, the cynical view of the world is pitted against the romantic.

As always with James, characters play hide-and-seek with what they cannot or will not know. Indeterminacy rules -- a state that's only natural when the subject is love.

"The Heiress," however, takes a more pragmatic approach to the proceedings. Drama demands a certain degree of clarity -- no wonder James' own theatrical ambitions came to naught -- and this adaptation doesn't want us to get tangled in the filigree of overly fine feelings.

To restore a bit of proper Jamesian nuance -- a necessity, one would think, for anyone attempting to reanimate this familiar work today -- requires actors who are willing to occasionally go against the grain of their characters. Of course, there are glorious precedents for the role of the painfully shy Catherine Sloper -- an affectingly sturdy Olivia de Havilland in the film version and a mutely heartbreaking Cherry Jones in the acclaimed 1995 Broadway production.

Kirsten Potter, SCR's attractive (possibly too attractive) Catherine, reveals pockets of unexpected strength amid all her social unease. But too often she pantomimes her character's traits rather than embodies them.

Indeed, Potter's range of hand gestures, facial expressions and body jerks could constitute a picture book of 19th century acting techniques. This isn't to say that her performance isn't effective -- she's as clear as a Walk/Don't Walk sign -- but it would be hard to mistake all this playing for reality.

As Dr. Austin Sloper, Tony Amendola is tyrannical in a plausibly paternal way. Regularly comparing his daughter unfavorably to his dead wife, he simply cannot imagine that anyone could ever love Catherine on her merits more than he does despite her flaws.

At the peak of Sloper's insensitivity, however, Amendola's fiery elocution and dazzling breath control become operatically apparent. His technical virtuosity ups the villainous ante, reminding us that this play is not just more than a half-century old but set in the howling yesteryear of 1850.

Michael A. Newcomer lends an innocent if somewhat bland touch to Morris Townsend, the young man with expensive taste and no prospects who comes a-courting. Morris' attraction to the better things of life raises plenty of red flags but stops short of being completely diabolical -- one of the production's rare swerves from archness.

How you respond to Lynn Milgrim's Lavinia, Catherine's amorously wistful widowed aunt, is probably the best predictor of what you'll think of this revival. Dressed in lavish mourning weeds, she magnifies nearly every comically annoying aspect of this romantic enabler.

Benson has obviously made a stylistic decision to depart from the kind of realism contemporary audiences have grown accustomed to. His method, musty yet robust, throws into relief the conflicts between characters -- allowing us to witness every inflicted injury, silent or otherwise, that occurs on Thomas Buderwitz's sumptuous drawing room set.

But the overarching dilemma of whether love might not always be compromise -- a bad bargain that's still better than no bargain at all -- doesn't leave us devastated at the end. Hard as it may be to pull yourself away from this exquisitely furnished Greenwich Village town house, only the Lavinias among us will need to bring Kleenex this time around.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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