At the peak of Richard Chamberlain’s thrillingly malevolent performance in “The Heiress,” the audience at the Pasadena Playhouse started hissing. If we had had tomatoes, we probably would have thrown them. The theater might want to frisk future ticketholders for produce, or add an anger-management session to the bill: It’s that hard to handle the emotions provoked by this gorgeously directed and acted revival.
You might not think you’ll be so invested in the marital prospects of a young woman in New York society in 1850, especially since Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s “The Heiress” (1947) is based on the novel “Washington Square” (1881) by Henry James, a writer whose nuanced investigations of human emotion are likelier to leave readers puzzled or melancholy than primed for a brawl.
But the plight of Catherine Sloper, played here by the magnificent Heather Tom, will reach through time, place, gender, class and prose style to rip your heart out. Director Damaso Rodriguez has grounded the play so authentically in its milieu that the tragic love story, far from seeming quaint, develops with an almost unbearable urgency.
Catherine lives with her father, Dr. August Sloper (Chamberlain), in a house in the prestigious Washington Square, realized with breathtaking grandeur and an airy blue palette by John Iacovelli’s beautiful set. Dr. Sloper’s adored wife died in childbirth. Although he has devoted himself to raising their daughter, as he complains to his widowed sister, Lavinia (Julia Duffy), he sees Catherine as “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise.”
When Morris Townsend (the darling Steve Coombs) comes courting, Dr. Sloper concludes that the charming but penniless young man is after Catherine’s money. He sets out to break up the lovers, in the process revealing his contempt for his daughter so cruelly that even the best-bred audiences will have a hard time controlling themselves.
I got through some scenes by telling myself that Catherine was a Jamesian metaphor for the creative spirit. But no: Tom makes her a heartbreakingly believable, sympathetic girl — not “dull,” as she has been taught to consider herself, but an introvert in a world that values easy charm. Glamorous in real life, the Emmy-winning soap opera actress manages to look dowdy with a flat hairdo and luxurious but unflattering clothes (excellently designed by Leah Piehl) as she flawlessly commands the arc of Catherine’s transformation.
Chamberlain gives Dr. Sloper impeccable manners, powerful charisma, a cold intelligence — and a light of madness in his famous blue eyes. Like the most frightening evildoers, he believes that he is doing the right thing. There is no violence onstage, barely a raised voice, only the clash of two subjective truths. Tom and Chamberlain, ably assisted by the rest of the skillful cast, make the outcome inevitable, convincing and unforgettable.
“The Heiress.” The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 20. $29-$100. (626) 356-7529 or www.pasadenaplayhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.