An oil painting dominates the stage. The graceful woman it portrays, with her controlled smile and fashionable curls, is the accomplished mother of ingenue Catherine, who died in childbirth.
In Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress, based on Henry James’ novella Washington Square, inheritance is about far more than money. In David Grindley’s astute production, Catherine fumbles with society etiquette and is harshly critiqued by her doctor father who, startlingly, reveals that he blames Catherine for his wife’s death. It’s a shivering admission for a father to make.
Grindley’s sprightly staging, which injects new energy into the Gate Theatre’s strand of period drama, has been sumptuously designed by Jonathan Fensom. The furnishings are ornate and his costumes crisply cut but, above all, it’s the placing of the double doors that’s inspired. When they’re closed, the actors recognise the privacy of the scene, and their playing loosens up accordingly.
Karen McCartney’s performance as Catherine mixes embarrassment with rage, while Denis Conway, as her father, gives a subtle portrayal of a man overcome by grief. His inability to love due to anguish is potent, but it’s hard to believe – despite Donal Gallery’s industrious performance – that Catherine’s suitor is anything other than a con man, which makes for rather predictable theatre.