What Jessica Chastain conveys with great success in THE HEIRESS is a young woman on the cusp of a change in manners. She is ill-at-ease in the 19th century of calling cards and formal visits, with its peculiar conventions of courtship and parental approbation, but with a certain cluelessness about what will replace it, and what it might represent for women in their relations with men and the society at large. And so there is a kind of uncouthness in the behavior of Chastain’s character that carries a challenge to the mores of the social stratum in which she moves and the family of which she is a present and future heiress but cannot fully empower her as a new sort of person because there is no set of concomitant social conventions to support her behaviors. She is a creature without guile in a universe of forms and appearances.
I thought this quite a remarkable achievement in a revival of this Henry James inspired play from 1947, which could have been hoary and sentimental despite the great talent involved (with Moisés Kaufman directing and David Strathairn as the disapproving father). Instead it is socially revealing, tinged with a certain lightheartedness of tone and capacity for surprise.
Strathairn has that quality some actors have that can only be called reliability; there is something recognizable in his own manner that allows him to enter as a sort of surrogate into the manners of the period; he knows that his daughter will defy his wishes but insists on adhering to the social forms available. In doing so, something of what he wishes in respect to his daughter’s romantic aspirations comes to pass despite her, and a certain foolishness on her part is fair enough exposed.
The rest of the cast, including Dan Stevens, Judith Ivey and Caitlin O’Connor, people the mannered society upon which the drama depends. Lionel Trilling once wrote that manners are basis of the novel as a form, because it through them that class is differentiated and revealed, which presumably applies to Washington Square, the novel on which the play is based. In its own modest way, this has the makings of a production – what I saw was a “preview” – worthy of the theme and its novelistic pedigree.