You might not associate the leisurely, carefully shaded 19th-Century prose of Henry James with electrifying drama--unless you happen to catch Ensemble Theatre's masterful revival of "The Heiress," that is.
Adapted in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from James' novel "Washington Square," the play proves eloquent and riveting in its depiction of a young woman's evolving independence as painful self-knowledge is foisted on her by a cold-hearted father and a self-centered suitor.
Insight doesn't come easily to Catherine Sloper (Karyl Lynn Burns), the naive daughter of a wealthy doctor in the rigidly paternalistic New York society of the 1850s. Possessed of neither glamorous beauty nor a sparkling personality, Catherine's prospects rest entirely on the large fortune she stands to inherit.
This fact has not escaped the protective eye of her father (William Lucking) or the admiring gaze of the penniless, good-looking charmer (Ben Bottoms) who begins courting her.
The recipe for tragedy is inexorable as these three accomplished performances hone the triangle's razor points of conflict.
Burns succeeds admirably at the formidable task of making Catherine a sympathetic heroine without violating James' concept of a hopeless maladroit. Not an inherently dim bulb, Catherine's latent capabilities and wit are evident in private, but they're overwhelmed by her awe of her father's stature and emotional detachment. Constantly tongue-tied and tripping over herself in her efforts to please him, she's quite endearing in her awkwardness.
Catherine's transformation after her father's brutally honest assessment of her fiancee's motives is astonishing: If ever a human heart folded shut before our eyes, it's here in this portrayal. The emergence of a clear-sighted realist comes with the terrible price she pays to obtain that vision.
As Catherine's father, Lucking uses the slightest inflections and gestures to throw open windows to a repressed but anguished soul. A widower slavishly devoted to the idealized memory of his dead wife, Doctor Sloper can barely contain his contempt for the daughter who failed to live up to his standards.
Yet in his own way he tries to do right by Catherine. His power to love may have withered away, but his judgment has not, and he sees all too clearly that young Morris Townsend is a fortune hunter.
Bottoms reveals the dazzling, enigmatic Morris in carefully doled-out stages. By turns worldly, passionate and cruelly acquisitive, we marvel at how easily he's able to seduce Catherine and taunt the doctor.
In the brief interval before the final scene, he seems literally to age the requisite years, and his mounting desperation is palpable.
Impeccable period staging (including the elegant set by director Robert Grande-Weiss and original costumes by Barbara Lackner) doesn't obscure the timeless struggle in this story of a woman who must learn to survive without illusions.
* WHAT: "The Heiress."
* WHEN: Through Nov. 20, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.
* WHERE: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara.
* HOW MUCH: $15-$20.
* CALL: (805) 962-8606.