- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

No doubt the hoity-toity Sloper family and the other residents of fashionable Washington Square would approve of Olney Theatre Center’s attractive, yet decorous, production of “The Heiress” by Augustus and Ruth Goetz.

Nothing here to rattle the Venetian crystal, except perhaps the wanton use of peacock and Prussian blue in James Wolk’s sumptuous Victorian drawing room set and the extravagant use of fabric by costume designer Liz Covey in the lustrous gowns and myriad accessories.

While director John Going’s handsomely appointed staging of this well-made play based on Henry James’ novel “Washington Square” offers a few discreet pleasures, it can be as stultifying as being trapped in a stuffy parlor with dull company.

The show is respectable and sturdily performed, yet, ultimately, you fail to ache for the play’s unlikely heroine, a congenital wallflower named Catherine Sloper (Effie Johnson), who learns that her plain looks and lack of charm have fated her to be unloved even by her own family.

Goodness is not held in high regard in the wealthy Sloper household. Dr. Austin Sloper (Ted van Griethuysen) is a relentlessly analytical and self-satisfied surgeon who wants to be surrounded by beauty in his home. He especially wants his good taste to manifest itself in Catherine, who is unadorned inside and out. Dr. Sloper cruelly compares her to his beautiful late wife, and calculates that his daughter will only be loved for her money.

This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy after Catherine engages in a hasty romance with the comely Morris Townsend (Jeffries Thaiss), full of charisma but reckless with money. Dr. Sloper catches onto his avarice right away and forbids the match, whisking Catherine off for an unhappy six months in Europe, where he chases after the ghost of his dead wife.

However, Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Halo Wines) is a romantic fool who goes to giddy lengths to bring the two together, even when it is apparent that Morris is after Catherine’s fortune.

The central heartbreak in “The Heiress” is not Catherine’s inability to be with the man she loves, but her turning from a kind, retiring soul to a cool customer who views her worth and position in society as based entirely on money. She comes to this realization in a showdown with her father, who brusquely informs her that she is a profound disappointment to him and that he has withheld love because she is not physically perfect.

How do you react when told that you are not enough? That you have always been and always will be without love? Miss Johnson undergoes a stunning transformation, taking Catherine from a soft-sided girl into a magnificently unyielding young woman — polished and pristine as a piece of marble statuary. She is serene and calculating, in fact, very much like her father. Too late and at too great a price, Catherine becomes a woman her father would admire.

Dr. Austin Sloper is a part Mr. Griethuysen was born to play — effortlessly patrician, commanding, a patriarch who lavishes care on his patients but is stingy with affection at home. Miss Wines is also an ideal fit for the seemingly boundless affability of Aunt Lavinia, until she reveals an unexpected canny side. As Morris, Mr. Thaiss displays relaxed charm, but because he plays his hand too early, you are never convinced he is anything but a bounder.

Olney’s staging of “The Heiress” unfolds like a pretty magazine spread on the interior design, fashions and mores of Victorian society. As a searing statement on valuing beauty above all and withholding love when someone does not satisfy your impossible standards, the production has all the substance of a calling card.

**

WHAT: “The Heiress” by Augustus and Ruth Goetz

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 12.

TICKETS: $34 to $44

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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