Bowie theater's `Heiress' has fine detail

Play based on James' `Washington Square' is done well all around


Arundel Live

October 23, 2003|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

By any criterion - story line, character development, director's vision, cast, set, costumes, and sound and light - Bowie Community Theatre's production of The Heiress is top-notch.

During the opening scene, when the maid appears holding a candle to illuminate the Victorian living room, the audience is transported to a mid-19th- century upper-class New York dwelling. The action takes place within this set, an ideal backdrop for Henry James' 1880 novel Washington Square, which became Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 play The Heiress.

This is the story of Catherine Sloper, the only child of wealthy physician Austin Sloper, whose clever, beautiful wife died in childbirth. Despite providing her with excellent schooling and training, Dr. Sloper finds Catherine a disappointment "without a shred of poise." And the self-effacing Catherine reflects her father's disapproval, often hiding in the pantry when guests visit.

Her life changes when suitor Morris Townsend arrives, bringing Catherine confidence. The relationship is encouraged by Catherine's foolish Aunt Lavinia but is frowned upon by Dr. Sloper, who suspects that the impoverished Townsend is attracted by only Catherine's wealth.

Director Craig Alan Mummey brings this story to dramatic life, presenting a period piece that seems remarkably relevant and investing it with multifaceted subtleties and fascinating contrasts. Under Mummey's skillful direction, there are no one-dimensional characters, only those filled with contrasting subtleties.

As Catherine Sloper, actress Rebecca Ellis delivers a magnificent performance - her initial awkwardness eliciting our sympathy, her blooming at Townsend's attention delighting us and her transformation into a person of independent strength presenting a triumph.

As her father, Austin Sloper, played by veteran actor Frank B. Moorman, delivers a compelling portrait that defies labeling as Calvinistic, cruel or self-pitying. Moorman's Sloper is all of these things with a core of human vulnerability that makes him a believable father.

Heidi Sue Toll is excellent as the fluttering Lavinia Penniman, her every gesture lending credence to this well-meaning, foolish woman who wants her niece's happiness, despite seeing her as unworthy of handsome Morris Townsend's attentions.

Greaton Sellers becomes Morris in a subtle portrayal that combines sophistication, manipulative skills and the vulnerability to expensive tastes that rule his emotions.

Thoughtful performances come from the supporting players: Heather Whitpan as charming Marian Almond; Kate Blackburn as her mother, Elizabeth Almond; Jim Gunning as Marian's suitor and Morris' brother, Arthur Townsend; Niji Ramunas as Morris' aunt; and Jennifer Toll as devoted maid Maria.

The quality of this production is enhanced by Suzanne Reams' exquisite costumes. The men's are superbly tailored, and for the women, there are dresses for every occasion befitting any heiress. Reams' attention to detail is evidenced by the elegant gloves carried by Morris and the authentic-looking pantaloons under every hoopskirt.

Including the street sounds of horses hooves and the insistent door knocking, the sound quality adds to the authenticity, as does the lighting design by Garrett Hyde.

The Heiress continues tomorrow and Saturday at Bowie Playhouse. Call 301-805-0219 for tickets.

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