"The Heiress" then and now: Tony Isbell and Christina Wellford Scott, '86. Evan McCarley and Michelle Miklosey, 2014.
director Tony Isbell
has a question: “What’s wrong with a little melodrama?”
In his day, novelist Henry James
, who authored Washington Square
, the play’s tried and true source material, could have probably answered that question with an earful. James had nothing but disdain for the work, and his inability to love the slender, unaffected novel— a novel in which others have found so much merit—is ironic, at least considering his story’s actual content. The Heiress
tells the story of Catherine Sloper, a cripplingly shy woman who becomes unable to love because she grew up unloved.
Catherine’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, a successful and worldly doctor, sees his infant daughter as the one who murdered his happiness. Worse, the daughter has the audacity to be plain and ungraceful, with no ear for music. Worser still, she’s become beguiled by Morris Townsend, a charming but unemployed young profligate who may actually love her a little, but is fantasizing openly about the prospects of a wife worth $30,000 a year. Jane Austen, an author James disregarded, couldn’t have done much better.
“It’s such a good script,” says Isbell who hadn’t revisited the material since he played the role of Morris Townsend at Theatre Memphis
25 years ago. It was Isbell’s first show on TM’s mainstage, and a production that looms large in the collective memories of Memphis theater folk, for bringing together talents like Isbell, Christina Wellford Scott
, and Bennett Wood
. The handsome 1986 production was also the last set design created by beloved Memphis scenic designer Jay Ehrlicher
, who fell ill, passing the baton to musician/designer Kermit Medsker
who finished the show.
Ann Sharp, Michelle Miklosey, Barclay Roberts
Isbell had fond memories of the production but rediscovered the simple pleasures of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s
relatively faithful 1947 adaptation, while perusing scripts as a member of TM’s playfinding committee.
“It was even better than I remember it being,” he says, citing the James’ ability to bring complicated characters to life in a story that couldn’t be more clearly told. He leapt at the opportunity to direct material that is both modern and not so modern: to tell a story that wants to be a comedy, tragedy, and romantic fantasy all at once, but is too real to fit neatly into any of these more rigid categories.
“There is a lot happening in The Heiress
that’s relevant,” Isbell says, touching on the enduring play’s themes of personal identity. “Women being told there’s a way they are supposed to be or to look. And it’s not just women.”
Though subtly framed, James’ story also considers the politics of fashion. Catherine’s red dress with gold fringe is gaudy wrapping paper for an uninspired gift in the eyes of Dr. Sloper, who can imagine his wife owning the outfit, not her daughter. To reveal his nature, the impoverished suitor’s fine and fancy gloves are compared to more humble variety worn by his doting aunt.
“This period, it’s the sort of thing [costume designer] André [Bruce Ward]
does so well,” Isbell says, lavishing special praise on Catherine’s many detailed gowns.
Isbell’s cast is a mix of veterans and newcomers. Newly-arrived Memphian Michelle Miklosey
takes on the role of Catherine. Veteran performer and human teddy bear Barclay Roberts
, plays her father, against type. Ann Sharp
and Christina Wellford Scott
— Isbell’s original Catherine — play Roberts’ romantic, and eccentric sisters. Evan McCarley appears as Morris Townsend.
As an added attraction, Virginia Yerian
, who played the part of Catherine in Theatre Memphis' even earlier, 1958 production of The Heiress
will be in the audience for opening night.
So, getting back to Isbell’s original question, what’s wrong with a little melodrama? It’s a question for the comment section, because I’ve got nothing.
David Morelock and Virginia Yerian in "The Heiress" at Theatre Memphis, 1958.