First staged on Broadway in 1947, this family melodrama remains surprisingly strong, with its stripping away of the civilities that obscure the bitter truth at the heart of its central father-daughter relationship as compelling an effect today as ever. And while director Moises Kaufman’s production may err on the side of stuffiness, all the period prettiness and stilted speech only reinforces the play’s stark psychological insights.
When the play opens, it’s 1850 and Dr. Sloper (David Strathairn), an eminent and evidently beloved doctor, is happily ensconced in his comfortable house on Washington Square (hence the name of the Henry James novel that inspired the play). The only fly in the ointment? His daughter. Despite the heavy-handed coaching of her aunt Lavinia (Judith Ivey), Catherine (Jessica Chastain) cannot, in her father’s eyes, do anything right. She’s too plain, too shy, too clumsy, too unaccomplished, too unsophisticated – and altogether too unlike her dead mother, evidently the love of Dr. Sloper’s life and now the mark against which his unspectacular daughter will always be found wanting. Enter Morris Townsend (Dan Stevens), a dashing young gentleman who pronounces himself smitten by Catherine almost on sight and, within two weeks, proposes to her. All seems headed for a happy ending – except that Dr. Slope suspects the penniless young man of being a fortune hunter, as what else could attract him to the retiring Catherine? – and determines to nix the nuptials.
The play’s an unabashed melodrama, and, set against a sumptuous period set dominated by a sweeping staircase, it’s filled with pretty people. But the production doesn’t shy from revealing the ugly mixed motives that move even these privileged, historically remote souls. As Catherine, Chastain may, arguably, be insufficiently dowdy despite the makeup artist’s best efforts, but her manner – her halting speech and clumsy gestures, especially in the presence of her father – are awkward enough that you can imagine how they grate on Dr. Sloper. And, though she manages to grow stronger and more secure after her eventual epiphany, the retiring wallflower of the first scene is still recognizable. Even stronger, Strathairn’s portrayal picks up on every cue from the text to show how this intelligent, well-meaning man can find it in himself to be wryly benevolent toward everyone who makes demands on him – except his daughter. Ivey is charming as she enables and lives vicariously through Catherine’s romance – to her ultimate, bitter regret. And Stevens does a good job at giving Morris sufficient opacity: We know he’s a gold-digger, but we’re never quite sure whether by the end he has really come to appreciate Catherine’s heart of gold.
While the play undeniably has its creaky moments, its climax and denouement retain their power – and perhaps even gain more in contrast with the ruffled dresses and quaint candlelight that seem that much more dated now than they did in 1947. What Catherine learns – brutally – is the power of withholding love. But does that discovery leave her strong and independent, or profoundly damaged? That question remains as gut wrenching now as it’s always been.