Front Row Center

THE HEIRESS
By Ruth Goetz & Augustus Goetz
Directed by Roseann Wilshere
Review by Harriet Hart

 

front-rowAudiences are calling The Heiress the best production Lakeside Little Theatre has done in years. Does it deserve such high praise and if so, why? I attended the play closing night and was fortunate to hear first hand from cast and crew.

Director Roseann Wilshere said: “A play is like making a stew – you never know how it will turn out in the end.  There was magic to this production from the outset.” All the ingredients that went into Roseann’s stew pot worked.

Although The Heiress is a period drama set in the 1800’s, it’s relevant today. We can still relate to conflict between parent and adult child. Is the stern father trying to protect his plain daughter from the handsome devil who is wooing her out of paternal love or is he more concerned about his fortune getting into the wrong hands? Should the timid young heiress marry the fortune hunter knowing full well he’s just after her money? Is her self respect more important than being part of a couple in a society where spinsters are pitied? The members of the audience I spoke to after the final curtain were all discussing these issues as if the play were real life.

To my mind, a period piece requires a beautiful set and fabulous costumes to seduce the audience. When the curtains opened on The Heiress there was a communal gasp followed by hearty applause. Beth Cathcart, a retired interior designer, had never designed a theatre set before, but told me she threw herself into the challenge, watched the film version, studied domestic furnishings of the period and sketched the rooms she wanted. Working with Alex Pinkerton and a skilled construction crew, Beth put together a magnificent Victorian drawing room worthy of a Washington Square home of the period.

The costumes were mouth dropping. The men wore morning suits and top hats, the ladies divine dresses, hats and capes. Wardrobe designer Karin Eichler and seamstress Johanna Clark created perfect outfits and nine dressers got the actors in and out of over 30 costume changes without a hitch! The Heiress was a visual treat thanks to the talented crew guided by a beloved director who according to stage manager Margo Eberly “cares about every single thing she puts on the stage.” The stage manager “kept everyone in line” and assistant director Michael Warren supported them both as he modestly put it, “by showing up regularly.”

None of this would matter without a superb group of actors. As Dr. Austin Sloper, Tony Wilshere was the most natural actor on stage. His autocratic father figure was chilling yet sympathetic. Diana Rowland played flighty chaperone Aunt Lavinia with wide-eyed enthusiasm.  Her vicarious pleasure at Morris Townsend’s wooing made me wonder if she was actually going to run off with him herself. Ken Yakiwchuk as Morris charmed and repelled me by turns. I wanted to believe he was a sincere suitor even when his body language told me otherwise. At the beginning Jayme Littlejohn as Catherine Sloper was so self-effacing, so pitiful that there were times when it was hard to watch her. By the final scene, Jayme had transformed her character into a strong woman unwilling to spend her adult life with a husband who didn’t love her, after spending her childhood with an uncaring father.

The leading actors were backed  by a strong supporting cast: Judy Long as the maid Maria, Arlene Pace as the realistic Aunt Elizabeth Almond, Caroline McCormack as popular cousin Marian, Kathleen Morris as Morris’s loyal sister, and Geoff Long, on stage for the first time, as Marian’s husband.

Director Roseann Wilshere says she was privileged to direct such a play. “Only at Lakeside would I get the opportunity.” I think Lakeside audiences are equally privileged and predict the rest of the season will be first rate. The Heiress has raised the bar.

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