Henry James novel comes to life in high style in Boerum Hill

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Henry James went back to his boyhood Manhattan neighborhood as a setting for his novel "Washington Square," a familiar tale of a young, defenseless person trying to escape from the tyranny of an older, more knowledgeable adult.

"Washington Square" is about the coming-of-age of Catherine Sloper, the shy daughter of the wealthy and sharp-tongued Dr. Austin Sloper. Catherine is courted by the impoverished but attractive Morris Townsend, who woos her, wins her and then abandons her when he learns that her father will disinherit her if she marries him.

Years later, after Dr. Sloper dies, Townsend returns with pledges of love and excuses for his poor behavior.

Although James himself attempted playwriting, his plays were all more or less unsuccessful. It wasn’t until Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted James’ novel into "The Heiress" that the dramatic possibilities of the novel were realized.

"The Heiress" is now being staged at the Boerum Hill Arts Center, under the direction of Stephen Hart. The play stars Caroline Treadwell as Catherine Sloper, Matthew Lee as Morris Townsend and Hart as Dr. Austin Sloper.

"The Heiress" also features an outstanding performance by Coulter Kent as Lavinia Penniman, Dr. Sloper’s sister.

Treadwell gives a subtle and solid performance as the tongue-tied young lady who gradually grows in stature and maturity. Until the very end she keeps the audience guessing about whether she will believe Morris’s professions of love and accept his excuses.

Nor is Morris a typical villain. Lee is almost as convincing with the audience as he is with Catherine. Even when the play is over, Lee leaves the audience questioning whether Catherine could be better off with his somewhat insincere love than with no love at all.

Perhaps the most complex character in "The Heiress," however, is Dr. Sloper. Clearly, he loves his daughter and wants the best for her - as he sees it. But he also believes she is a pale substitute for his wife, a vivacious and vibrant woman who died in childbirth. If Catherine sees herself as worthless and inadequate, it’s easy to see who first created that image.

Yet Hart insightfully does not make the doctor a cruel man, but rather a misguided, inflexible father. If he is not lovable, he is certainly not detestable.

The entire action of "The Heiress" takes place in the Slopers’ upstairs parlor, which has been meticulously designed by Susan Ryan, Steven Manos-Jones, Audra Graziano and Noel Vasquez, down to the last doily. The characters glide in and out of this room dressed in lavish period clothing - top hats and bonnets, capes and gloves, frills and fobs. One cannot help but wonder what wonderful treasure chest costume coordinator Anne-Marie Gotfried has rummaged through. (The costumes were, in fact, rented from the Theater Development Fund’s costume collection.) Few local theaters ever produce a piece so visually pleasing.

Like most of James’ work, "Washington Square" relies heavily on psychological perception, experience and present reality to develop abiding moral themes. This made his novels extremely powerful at the end of the 19th century when they were written. But it is a double-edged sword. In his notes to the audience, Hart writes, "1850 is an era that feels both familiar and distant to New Yorkers."

He then goes on to talk about thriving commerce, street crime, a class-conscious society, the need to control every aspect of life from fashion to finance, and the defined roles of men and women - a fine mix of the familiar and distant. In fact, one could make a good case that today much of James work seems dated and inconsequential on the surface.

Nevertheless, James’ writing, and works based on his writing are not so easily relegated to the back of the bookcase. Those who are willing to overlook the plodding phrases and the archaic characters will find more than a few kernels of wisdom and eventually a glimpse at a truth that age can never tarnish.

If at first "The Heiress" seems awkward, slow and verbose, after a short while, many in the audience will find themselves almost unwillingly drawn to the characters and into the plot. James and his dramatist interpreters have done what all good artists do. They have made others care about what they have to say.


"The Heiress" plays through June 17, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $10, $5 seniors, students and children. The Boerum Hill Arts Center is located at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 490 Pacific St. at Third Avenue.

Tickets are on sale at The Melting Pot, 494 Atlantic Ave.; Breukelen, 369 Atlantic Ave.; and Musicians General Store, 213 Court St. For more information, call (718) 855-9865.

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