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Little Theater’s ‘Heiress’ Brings James Novel to Life

Emotions run high in "The Heiress," the stage version of Henry James' novel "Washington Square."

But the carefully restrained production that opened last weekend at the Little Theatre of Alexandria keeps those emotions on a thoroughly satisfying tight rein, as befits behavior in the front parlor of a fashionable home in antebellum New York City.

Director Carla Scopeletis manages to let those emotions show through without violating the feel of time and place - - a direct consequence of the talents of the three leading performers, Karen Jadlos Shotts, Don Chudzik and Matthew Randall.

Shotts takes her time as she builds her portrait of Catherine Sloper, the painfully shy young woman who has only the prospect of well-to-do spinsterhood in her future. Her blossoming self-confidence seems not only natural but inevitable.

In the early scenes, she wisely avoids adopting excessive mannerisms so that her character is likeable rather than irritating and sympathetic rather than off-putting. This sets up the impact of the final scene, making it the emotional high point of the evening.

Both Chudzik and Randall are new to area stages and are welcome additions to the store of talent in local community theaters. Chudzik is especially good as Morris Townsend, the charming suitor who tries to sweep Catherine off her feet, showing tremendous reserves of charm and grace while allowing just a bit of mercenary motivation in his demeanor.

An officer in the Navy by day, Chudzik comes to the Washington region after a stint in community theater in Norfolk.

Randall comes from farther away, making his East Coast debut with "The Heiress" after appearing in many shows in the San Francisco Bay area.

As Dr. Auston Sloper, his work here starts out a bit stiffly. In fact, it is a bit too stiff, even for the restrained and controlled character he plays – the father who is deeply disappointed in the daughter he hoped would be a recreation of his vivacious late wife. As the evening progresses, however, Randall builds the character, turning him into a more complex person than he at first seemed to be.

The restrained gentility so prominent in the performances carries over into the set design as well. Robert Gray designed a solidly dignified parlor for the Slopers’ house on New York's fashionable Washington Square. With deep green walls, cream chair rails and detailing and working fireplace and oil lamps, the home speaks volumes about the social rank of this family, as do Grant Kevin Lane's costumes.

All of it looks just right under the highly varied lighting design of Dick Schwab who captures daylight, evening and deepest night by window light, lamplight and firelight with skill. The feeling is further enhanced by a fine soundscape by Bill Rinehuls, who includes the sounds of rain, horse drawn carriages and offstage doorbells with romantic classics.

This version of the "The Heiress," suggested" by James's 1880 novel, was written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in the 1940s and was a hit on Broadway. It was made into a movie in 1949 which won Olivia de Havilland an Oscar (along with Aaron Copland who wrote the background music).

The play has been revived on Broadway twice but strangely hasn't found too many productions in community theaters to date. Perhaps the success of the Little Theatre of Alexandria's production will help spread the word of the quality of the play to other companies.