“The Heiress” tells the story of Dr. Sloper (David McCullough ’17), his ungainly daughter Catherine (Lilla Brody ’18) and her young suitor Morris (Jared Andrew Michaud ’19), who likes material things too much.
Dr. Sloper is a very successful doctor and a man of great poise. McCullough skillfully captures the suave, genteel air of the upper-class elite of 1940s New York, as does Michelle Fogarty ’16, who plays Dr. Sloper’s sister. Their conversations feel somewhat scripted, but not because they lack acting skill — the two tactfully navigate conversation as if they are bound to an intricate, formal social code in the presence of company.
But awkward Catherine has none of the poise required to participate in this social world. Clearly a disappointment to her father, who can see her only as simple and dull compared to her late mother, Catherine can hardly string together a full sentence in the company of guests. Even the suitor’s lower-class sister easily outmaneuvers Catherine in the art of small talk.
Painfully obvious from the first string of flattering comments, Morris the suitor is clearly only interested in Catherine’s sizable inheritance, and he proposes marriage two weeks after their first meeting. Her father considers Catherine inadequate “compensation” for his wife, who presumably died giving birth — his primary motivation is to cultivate Catherine into a version of her mother. Dr. Sloper’s and Morris’ desires seem to promise an interesting dilemma for Catherine: confronted with two men valuing her for the wrong reasons, seeing her only through the lens of their own wants, what does she make of herself?
But the only concrete answer Catherine offers us is an overwhelming, and somewhat pathetic, desperation to be loved. She deludes herself about the true motivation of Morris’ courtship, and even once his motives become painfully obvious, she toys with the idea of resigning herself to what her father calls a “mercenary marriage.” It’s hard not to feel sorry for her character, because she is clearly miserable and utterly convinced of her undesirability. But the play never sufficiently illustrates her thoughts and emotions, which leaves her unreliable and not particularly compelling. The story veers away from a feminist critique of the male gaze — but neither does it evolve into a Frankenstein-style tale of painful exclusion from society. Where “The Heiress” does go remains unclear to me.
Toward the end of the play, Catherine symbolically takes her father’s seat in the living-room set, assuming along with it his force and curtness. She rejects the marriage proposal, which she now sees, more clearly than ever, to be empty of love. So, she has become … resigned? Has she, like her father, given up on love after being disappointed? Neither the acting nor the script offers much insight.
The set was also conceptually confused: the red banners hanging in the backdrop were reminiscent more of a totalitarian regime’s meeting room than a fancy 1940s Manhattan apartment.
Maybe “The Heiress” achieves its conceptual goals of illustrating the cycle of feeling unloved and then losing the ability to love others. Pragmatic and deadened, perhaps the characters consistently fail to elicit an emotional reaction any deeper than disgust or pity because they are no longer capable of inspiring anyone, of being loved by anyone. So maybe the piece makes its point smartly. Maybe.