The Vagabond Players has launched its 75th season with a revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz's "The Heiress." It's a fitting choice for several reasons.
For starters, the theater's anniversary season consists entirely of favorites from past years. "The Heiress" has had two previous productions, in the 36th and 61st seasons. And, though it's a bit of stretch, there's a Baltimore angle as well. Mrs. Goetz's father was one of H. L. Mencken's publishers, and Mencken wrote the first play the Vags produced.
More to the point, over the years the theater has made period costume dramas somewhat of a specialty, and "The Heiress" -- set in 1850 and adapted from Henry James' novel, "Washington Square" -- is an ideal example.
Indeed, the period elements -- the flowing gowns and elaborately appointed drawing-room set -- are lovely in this production, directed by Robin Holt. But except for a few able performances, the acting and staging lack subtlety. In the second, slower half of the evening, the actors strike so many melodramatic poses, all that's missing is organ accompaniment.
Essentially a character study, "The Heiress" depicts the hardening of a good-hearted but perilously shy young woman. The daughter of a prominent New York physician, Catherine Sloper is the eventual heir to $30,000 a year. Though she is devoted to her father, he treats her coldly, having never forgiven her for the tragedy of her mother's death in childbirth.
Nonetheless, Catherine is perfectly content until she falls in love with a handsome, worldly gentleman named Morris Townsend. Convinced that Morris is merely a fortune hunter, Dr. Sloper does everything in his power to wreck the romance. In the end, Catherine inherits not only her father's wealth, but his cold heart as well.
The production's chief reward is watching the metamorphosis of Catherine, touchingly portrayed by Kathy Foit Sewell. Initially the embodiment of a shrinking violet, she finds courage in love, only to eventually become a mean-spirited version of her misguided father.
Vince Kimbal is a sniveling know-it-all as her father, but he elicits a modicum of sympathy as well. As status-seeking Morris, Rodney Atkins needs more confidence to convey the charm that turns Catherine's head. And, as Catherine's foolishly romantic widowed aunt, Anne B. Mulligan has the proper manner, but doesn't yet seem to have settled into the part.
Seventy-five years is a major achievement for a community theater, and "The Heiress" is a fine script to inaugurate the diamond jubilee. Would that the production sparkled as brightly as the occasion.
'The Heiress' When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Oct. 14.
Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway.
Tickets: $7 and $8.