'The Heiress' Returns to Broadway — Much to Henry James' Eternal Chagrin

Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens in 'The Heiress'
Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens in 'The Heiress'

If you went back in time to 1880 and told Henry James that his novel Washington Square would be lighting up Broadway stages clear into the twenty-first century, he would have been incredulous -- and probably miserable. James couldn't stand what he'd written, and practically disowned the book despite its great success and popularity.

Fast forward to 2012's current production of "The Heiress," the play adapted from that novel, in which we've got something for just about everybody (except James): a perfect overlap of literature, theater, and film. Jessica Chastain -- who's having something of a moment, thanks to films like "The Help" and "The Tree of Life" -- has shouldered the heavy mantle of  main character Catherine Sloper, a woman whose wealth is exceeded only by her homeliness and social anxiety, who discovers somewhere within her the audacity to fall for a dashing, penniless young gentleman.

What happens between them -- and within Catherine herself -- has been thrilling Broadway audiences since 1947, and has been revived approximately every twenty years since then. Olivia de Havilland earned her first Oscar for the 1949 film version, which holds up as a masterpiece of acting and design to this day (here's the original trailer). Montgomery Clift had more of a Henry James reaction to the film: he's reported to have been so unhappy with his own performance that he stalked out of the premiere midway through.

So how does this most recent production fare under the weight of so much history? Well, as for pop-cultural relevance, The New York Times believes that the popularity of "Downton Abbey" has audiences well-primed to soak up that elaborate period atmosphere. Their reviewer has greater love for Washington Square than the author did, describing it as "Henry James for people who usually can’t abide Henry James ... Short and perfectly constructed, it builds to a quietly harrowing climax that anticipates the genteel, ironic-twist revenge tales of W. Somerset Maugham."

However, he has a very mixed reaction to the play's leading lady: "[Chastain] has one of those uncanny bone structures, like Garbo’s, that the camera translates automatically into emotional depth ... Beneath the stage lights those fine bones throw fascinating shadows on her face. Her performance, on the other hand, is as shadowless as a high noon." He does remark that Chastain's understated performance allows lesser figures to catch the light in interesting ways. If the Tony-decorated Judith Ivey manages to steal the show as Catherine's aunt Lavinia (memorably played by Miriam Hopkins in the film), is that such a tragedy?

Either way, it's satisfying to have traditions like "The Heiress" to look back on, and anticipate -- sort of like the literary equivalent to Halley's Comet. Even if it causes the ghost of Henry Miller to rattle his chains, I'm already looking forward to whatever the best and brightest from both Hollywood and Broadway come up with for 2030's recurrence.