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Broadway hit packs plenty of star power

"The Heiress" playbill

NEW YORK -- During a recent weekend in New York, we were fortunate to see a "hot ticket" Broadway show, "The Heiress," a revival of the 1947 drama, its popular success now due to current star power with Dan Stevens, Jessica Chastain and David Strathairn in the lead roles.

Stevens portrays Matthew Crawley on British Masterpiece Theater's "Downton Abbey," while Chastain of "Zero Dark Thirty" fame has been named a 2013 Academy Award nominee in best actress category and was also honored last year for supporting actress in "The Help."

Strathairn plays Secretary of State Seward in the movie "Lincoln" and is a past Oscar nominee for best actor (as journalist Edward R. Murrow) in the film "Good Night and Good Luck." The audience at "The Heiress" showed its approval of these fine actors with appreciative applause.

Written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, this play is adapted from a novel of the 1880's, "Washington Square" by Henry James, set in mid-19th century New York City in the Washington Square neighborhood where residents lived comfortably in stately brownstone homes built around a park. On stage the elegance of the drawing room evokes just the right atmosphere of that period in history.

The story tells about Catherine Sloper (Chastain), a young woman of marriageable age who is shy, plain and awkward in social situations. Her domineering father, a wealthy, well-respected physician, finds fault with her because she's neither clever nor charming. His disappointment in her is magnified by the fact that his beautiful, perfect wife died following Catherine's birth.

Although he does not expect that his daughter will ever find a husband, she falls in love with Morris Townsend, a handsome young man (Stevens) she meets at an engagement party for her adorable cousin. As a suitor for Catherine, Morris does not meet Dr. Sloper's qualifications, and he feels certain that Townsend is after the family's fortune. Even though Morris is intelligent and his manners are smooth, he has not yet settled on a suitable career and has too much free time to call at the Sloper house, sometimes gazing wistfully at various treasures displayed around the rooms.

After unfortunate decisions are made, Catherine grows into a much stronger person when she seeks revenge on both her father and Morris. For the final act, the playwrights created a more dramatic twist than the similar, yet milder, ending with which James chose to conclude his novel "Washington Square."

The 10 members of the cast provide right-on-target characterizations, which we expect with Broadway productions. Chastain is too good-looking to be completely believable as a timid, plain-faced heroine, though she appears without much makeup and with drab hair coloring instead of the stunning redhead of films and press photos.

The always-appealing Stevens fits the romantic lead, and his trained American accent suits even when we're accustomed to "Downton Abbey's" British dialogue. Strathairn makes a convincing stern father who retains firm control of his household.

The story offers humor, too, especially because of two-time Tony Award winnerJudith Ivey's role of Aunt Lavinia, Dr. Sloper's sister, who lives with him and Catherine, assuming chaperone duties for her niece. The audience loved her as she rustles across the stage in her period gowns, often stealing a scene while encouraging romance between Catherine and Morris. Moise Kaufman directs.

Some of you may remember a pleasing production of "The Heiress" at Okoboji Summer Theatre in 1977 as well as the earlier successful film of the same name, which turns up occasionally on Turner Classics (TCM) channel. Olivia de Haviland earned an Oscar for best actress in that movie.