Ambiguity Hovers Over Washington Square, 1850

by Sam Black

A plate of delicacies for High Tea
A plate of delicacies for High Tea

Last weekend was the final cycle of The Heiress, a drama production by Wise Fool Shakespeare on stage at the Harbor City Auditorium. The Saturday evening performance was quite well attended, and I trust no one went away disappointed, except perhaps by the very nature of the characters’ behaviors in the story. 

Most of the fictional writings by Henry James embrace a very human level of ambiguity. And James has a way of writing almost a play script - the dialogue of the characters is far more important than any narrator who is telling the story. If you have read James, you’ll know what I mean.

Back in the early 1940s, Ruth and Augustus Goetz latched on to James’ novel, Washington Square, and did indeed create a play script which they renamed The Heiress. As a stage play in 1947, it took New York by storm. The 1949 movie version won Oscars for Best Movie and Best Actress. We were treated to a very intense performance Saturday night, and Jennie Ross, as Catherine Sloper, was emotionally in control, yet exhausted by the end of the drama. She made her point, and several characters were powerfully subdued by her rising sense of personal control.

Basically, Morris Townsend (attractively played by Rob Larson) is newly returned to New York City, and is immediately infatuated by the lovely young Catherine. She is an only child; her mother died as she gave birth to Catherine. Her physician father, played by John Munson, blames his daughter for his wife’s death, yet knows that his daughter will be a wealthy woman as his own pneumonia encroaches. The ambiguity surrounds the inheritance:  is Morris in love with Catherine? Is Morris in love with the prospect of her coming wealth? 

Catherine and her father, Dr. Austin Sloper
Catherine and her father, Dr. Austin Sloper

Basically, we are never sure. Even the Saturday audience, using an easel during intermission, was quite divided over the question. Tony Barrett, well-known to Duluth drama circles, directed this dialogue-centered drama quite deftly. Nuances of meaning were convincingly shared, and the stark, aggressive decision Catherine finally made left all the other characters staring into the dust.

Young Morris is a bit of a spendthrift, yet attractive, articulate, and quite convincing. He particularly persuades Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia (liltingly played by Tammy Ostrander) to take his side whenever he makes a puzzling decision or two. When he realizes how much the Doctor dislikes him, Morris leaves an elopement with Catherine in the lurch and heads for New Orleans and California for two years, to attempt to gain an income.

Catherine(Jennie)  and Morris(Rob) at Washington Square
Catherine(Jennie)  and Morris(Rob) at Washington Square

When Morris returns, the Doctor has died, and he effusively apologizes to Catherine and her Aunt, renewing his courtship of the somewhat wiser and suspicious Catherine. She agrees to an immediate elopement, and when he returns for her she bolts the door, turns off the lights, and retires to her room. End of show.

 Paybacks are hell, as my own brother was fond of saying.

 I chose to attend the High Tea before the performance, which was a colorful and tasty delight, even if not quite British. This is Duluth, of course, so these moments are rare. A woman from the Twin Cities was in town visiting family at tea, and she was deeply appreciative of the acting talent that she watched, 180 miles north of downtown Minneapolis. This is true. These actors and actresses are all well-seasoned, and Barrett kept them tightly connected to the intimacy of the script. The sets, lights, and sound never really changed, but they were precisely correct for the dialogue. Special thanks to Wise Fool Artistic Director Chani Ninneman for adding The Heiress to the theatrical excitement of Duluth. 

Fasten your seatbelts, all the same: Billy Elliot is very near to dancing his way into Duluth.