In the novel Washington Square, Henry James focuses in on the falsely generated highs and the devastating lows of an intensely introverted, awkward heiress and a sour, damaged father, harsh with his words and unable to disassociate his daughter from the memory of her socially agile and esthetically pleasing mother. Spending time “in the character’s heads” as it were, through the use of a third person narrative, is a large part of why despite his deepest desires to be a playwright, James’s stage adaptations are almost always lacking. The clarity and poetry of his descriptions in the novel and the psychological insight of each character that a narrator allows for, are at the heart of his beautiful stories, NOT his dialogue which is so essential for a compelling stage version. While the plots are indeed intriguing and dramatic, there’s often a disconnect when it comes to James being translated for the stage. The Heiress, at Palo Alto Players is yet another attempt to bring the very intimate, internal, written themes of James’ novels to the public, spoken world of the stage.
Upon entering the theater the stage setting seemed quite lovely. The rich velvet reds of the curtains and sofa seemed to set the proper mood in particular, but as the first half progressed, the cracks in the beautiful façade, unfortunately began to show themselves.
Our first introduction to the father is actually quite favorable and he seems cheerful and even likable. Our heroine appears neither homely nor truly socially awkward (a huge obstacle for buying into the core plot device). Neither did she seem truly aware, bothered nor emotionally destroyed in the least by her failings as she telegraphed her “humorous” forced inelegance by panning wide-eyed to the audience. Somewhere between the sing-songy cadence of a Disney movie and a period sitcom, the heightened delivery that many of the actors seemed to be stuck in was, for me, off-putting from the start.
While there’s no getting around that the story is sadly painful (okay, quite honestly, miserable) and I can see why a choice might be made to liven up the first half by inserting a bit more levity, I felt the places they chose to do so weren’t maybe the best. They ultimately didn’t serve the piece and made for confused actors who were stuck playing two simultaneous emotions quite often and when they were, much of the real emotion seemed to abruptly come out of left field. With the exception of Mrs. Montgomery (a real breath of fresh air with her layered and sincere performance) and the occasional exchange between Lavinia and Elizabeth Almond (when they weren’t stuck upstage, totally obstructed by furniture) I wasn’t feeling the chemistry and cohesiveness of this ensemble. I don’t believe this was due to miscasting, I feel there were just too many challenges across the board that prevented it from clicking.
While not an uncommon practice with previous incarnations, there were significant plot changes from the original story. Again, while I understand that these choices might be more appealing and dramatic to perform on stage, far more “satisfying“ to an audience in theory, I felt they were incongruent, unnecessary and almost disrespectful to the original sentiment. This adaptation left out so much of what makes it a good story and caused numerous challenges for the creative team.
The emotional depth of the characters, both written and acted in the second act were far superior to the first, bringing the angst and tragedy I’d been missing, but the sudden and ultimately forced arc of our heroine felt unlikely and challenged me to “buy into” the scenario. The irreparable damage had already been done in a sense, and not unlike the themes of the plot, there was no going back, no change possible in the way I felt about it.
While I could have listened to the transitional music that was chosen for hours, the night I saw the show seemed to be rife with sound issues. 11 chimes of the clock instead of 10 then 9 instead of 11, and an abrupt and almost comical quality of sound effect that further pulled me out of reality, divorcing any sympathy for the characters I might have had.
Ditto for the lighting design which felt, quite frankly, totally neglected and incomplete. The same impossible blue light coming in through the window at night during two different seasons for example was distracting and another example of the unreal. The candles or gas lights weren’t all lit and flickered like the orange electric imitations that they were. Technically speaking, while I’m certainly no period expert, the costumes were lovely to look at and fit well, proving a real bright spot in the production.
Admittedly, I’m quite attached to the original text (gee, could you tell?) and had high hopes this would somehow magically be the version to finally be successfully translated to the stage, but even as a standalone piece, I couldn’t find enough to glom on to. All in all I think the theory is still proven, that Henry James has yet to be truly successful as a stage piece. A valiant attempt by Palo Alto Players, but I simply didn’t feel there was enough consistency throughout the production to call it a triumph. 3 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a show that wants to be something that may just not be possible. The Heiress plays through February 2nd at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto.