(Pasadena Playhouse, April 24 - May 20, 2012)
Upon seeing The Heiress, based on Henry James' novel Washington Square, one is transported to a distant world. If middle-class values existed, they were certainly not recognized by the inhabitants of 1850 Washington Square, where members of the elitist branch of society insisted on being surrounded by only wealth and privilege.
When poor Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) asks for the hand in marriage of plain,
rich Catherine Sloper (Heather Tom), he is branded a fortune hunter and shunned by
her uncontrollably cruel father Dr. Austin Sloper (Richard Chamberlain). Now in a most stunning revival at the Pasadena Playhouse under the elaborate direction of Damaso Rodriguez, a stellar cast deliver the goods and bring fresh meaning to The Heiress.
It is difficult to look honestly at a classic play and value its universality without thinking "dated". Set in the19th century, The Heiress is a glimpse at a world that no longer exists but whose snobbery and old-fashioned conceptions of individual self-worth are still held by many two centuries later. How often does a father or mother chastise a child for not living up to their potential! And ever so detrimental to the emotional well being of that child!
Dr. Sloper cannot stand the fact that his wife died because of daughter Catherine's difficult birth - he blames her for it - and constantly berates her, as she is trying desperately
to win his favor and love. This kind of paternal abuse is as evil and vile as the physical kind, perhaps greater, leaving the victim without any sense of pride. Then there is the self-proclaimed love of mercenary Morris Townsend, who, despite his charms, interpreted as false or otherwise, has managed to make Catherine feel finally alive...and somewhat loved, even if it is not completely. As she herself proclaims at one point, it is certainly better than the attention she has been getting.
The acting under Damaso Rodriguez' fine direction is simply superb. Chamberlain has never been better, playing the wicked father most convincingly. He never overplays,
but keeps his negative comments low-key, practically treating some lines as throw aways, making the bite internal and thoroughly brutal. Julia Duffy as Aunt Lavinia is equally adept in her outstanding portrayal. Every word and gesture has meaning, as she, the opposite of Dr. Sloper, cares so deeply for Catherine's plight. Coombs, such a good actor, plays Townsend with a genuine quality, leaving just a trace of sympathy/pity for
his actions. Does he or doesn't he love Catherine Sloper? You, the audience, must decide. The lovely Heather Tom is astounding as dowdy Catherine, making her every inch the insecure old maid. Her emotional breakdown in Act II when Morris fails to arrive is thrilling to the bone, as is her turn-around complete sense of control throughout the remainder of the play. Wonderful in supporting roles are Gigi Birmingham, Jill Van Velzer, Elizabeth Tobias, Anneliese Van Der Pol and Chris Reinacher. Leah Piehl's costumes are excellent period creations and John Iacovelli's set design is to die for, one of the best on stage anywhere. If I gave awards for set design, it would win first prize.
This revival of The Heiress is indeed elegantly mounted from top to bottom. What is fresh in its acute vision is the awareness that people can relate to each other across centuries, and that bad behavior in a myriad of family relationships is simply that, and sadly
will never alter. 5 out of 5 stars
© 2012 Don Grigware
Richard Chamberlain and critic Don Grigware
A taut, intense ‘The Heiress’ at the Playhouse
When dealing with a play which some consider a classic, the struggle is always between the production best known — the bellwether for many people, the one they consider “right” — and innovation.
This has definitely been true of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s “The Heiress.” Defined for many by Olivia de Havilland’s Oscar-winning film version, it was redefined in the 1990s
in Cherry Jones’ Tony-winning portrayal. Though that new view of an established character gave great pause to some purists, it acknowledged the play as a living thing. This is what theater is supposed to do. The story itself can be tragic or transformative, based on how the title character is played. A shy young woman, the daughter of a doctor, finds that a handsome young man is interested in her despite her father’s low opinion
of her charms. Her father sees the young man as a predator, while his widowed sister embraces the romance which appears to be on the horizon.
As the conflict between daughter’s hopes and father’s suspicion plays out, truths of their relationship are bared, while the romantic aunt wrings her hands.
In the new production at the Pasadena Playhouse, Heather Tom has chosen to find middle ground between de Havilland’s gentleness and Jones’ underlying rebellion. Tom’s Catherine, plain and hesitant, confronts her own natural practicality along with her wishes for romance. It works.
Richard Chamberlain, as Catherine’s father, vibrates with the festering, self-centered bitterness of a man whose own romantic notions smashed against tragedy too soon.
Once the gentility is thinned on each of these characters, the chemical reactions are intense and interesting.
Julia Duffy provides balance as the kindly, well-intentioned aunt, while Steve Coombs makes Morris, the dubious young man, handsome and deceptively at ease in a house of wealth. Elizabeth Tobias turns the maid who observes so much of the upheaval into a far more three-dimensional character that one often sees. Indeed, all the rest of the ensemble provides a rounded and interesting backdrop to this taut story.
Director Damaso Rodriguez balances the personalities of his characters well, keeping the story from ever devolving into the maudlin, and allowing some of the more subtle points of the story and characterizations to have just the gentlest underscore. It means everything to audience engagement, as the layers of emotion settle upon them.
And the thing looks just right. John Iacovelli’s upper crust house, with its mixed aura
of self-control and wealth, fits the mood of the piece beautifully. The expertly period costumes of Leah Piehl, worn and used as fits the times, transport one back to pre-civil war New York where this particular character dynamic could so easily appear.
“The Heiress” offers one of the greater female parts in American theatrical literature.
To see it reinvented over and over, in subtle gradations of character, is to watch the art
of the actor and director at its finest. The artistic image of Catherine cannot remain static any more than one of Hamlet can. Each new generation must take something away from the piece. Rodriguez and Tom know that, and it shows.
© 2012 Frances Baum Nicholson Pasadena Scene
RICHARD CHAMBERLAIN – HOME, HOME ON THE STAGE
While he has reached iconic stature as television’s Dr. Kildare and for his roles in a string of legendary miniseries, actor Richard Chamberlain says he is, and always has been,
most at home on the boards.
“Although there’s a tremendous amount of waiting around, film and television work
can be very exciting – doing things out of sequence – backwards and upside down.
But when things get rolling, I really do enjoy the process,” said actor Richard Chamberlain. “That said, I feel more at home on the stage. I enjoy the environment
of stage work – the rehearsal process and going from beginning to end. I also love
being in front of an actual audience instead of a machine.”
Chamberlain is currently enjoying being back at home in front of an audience in the
role of Dr. Austin Sloper in The Pasadena Playhouse’s production of “The Heiress,”
which will run through May 20.
A Los Angeles native, Chamberlain graduated from Beverly Hills High School, matriculated to Pomona College, co-founded a theatre group, Company of Angels,
and began appearing in various television series throughout the 1950s. In 1961,
at the age of 27, Chamberlain was cast in a role that would become one of the most
iconic in television history – Dr. James Kildare – in the MGM television series
“Dr. Kildare,” co-starring with legendary stage and screen star, Raymond Massey.
“Ray and I had first worked together on an ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ episode – which was one of my first jobs in television,” Chamberlain recalled. “I played his son and we
got on quite well. So when ‘Dr. Kildare’ came along and he had been cast as Dr. Gillespie, he had approval of who would be cast to play Dr. Kildare. Because we had worked well together, he approved me. He was a wonderful friend and father figure to me. He was generous, kind, funny and just wonderful. I didn’t have a good relationship with my own father, so Ray filled in the gap my father didn’t.”
When “Dr. Kildare” wrapped production after a successful five-season run, Chamberlain returned to the theatre and, in 1968, went to England where he appeared in the
BBC’s adaptation of “Portrait of a Lady” and worked in repertory theatre, becoming
the first American to play the role of Hamlet in the UK since John Barrymore did so
in 1925. The following year, he was cast as Roderick in the Warner Bros./Seven Arts screen production of the satirical dramedy, “The Madwoman of Chaillot,”
with Katharine Hepburn.
“She was the most unique human being I ever encountered,” laughed Chamberlain as
he recalled working with the great Kate. “She was just incredible and wonderful to work with. She has a gigantic personality that she used brilliantly. She would have her steak and swim every morning, ride her bike to work where she would then proclaim: ‘I like
to feel better than anybody,’ and then be in bed by 8:30. She could also be a bit of a bully. I remember her questioning the director (Bryan Forbes) on some things until he finally had enough and expressed his exasperation. She took it all in stride and said:
‘All you had to do is tell me to shut up.’”
Throughout the 1970s, Chamberlain continued appearing in films, including “The Towering Inferno,” “The Three Musketeers,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Lady’s Not for Burning.” That era also saw him earn the moniker of “King of the Miniseries”
for his appearances as Alexander McKeag in “Centennial,” the dual role of Louis XIV
of France and his twin brother, Philippe, in “The Man in the Iron Mask,”
Major John Blackthome in “Shōgun” and as Father Ralph de Bricassart
in “The Thorn Birds.”
“I did some really great miniseries,” said Chamberlain. “It was a wonderful, rich period
of using exciting material – these grand novels – to do what were actually very expensive and well-produced productions. The miniseries is a fabulous medium because, it’s halfway between a television series and a feature film. While they are shot much faster than
a feature, they are shot much slower that a series episode. You really have the time
to work on your character and each scene.”
Since the late 1980s, Chamberlain has appeared in “King Solomon’s Mines” with Sharon Stone, and as Jason Bourne in the 1988 version of “The Bourne Identity.” He has also returned to the stage as Henry Higgins in the 1993 Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady” and as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 2005 national tour of “Scrooge: The Musical” and has made numerous guest-starring appearances on the small screen in “The Drew Carey Show,” “Will & Grace,” “Hustle,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chuck” and “Brothers and Sisters.” In 2008, and again in 2009, he appeared as King Arthur in
the national tour of Monty Python's “Spamalot” and in 2010, appeared in the recurring role of expert thief Archie Leach in the TNT drama “Leverage.”
Today, the three-time Golden Globe winner, who turned 78 this past March, is enjoying his life – personally and professionally – as much as ever. “While I have found it to be rather distressing having to put up with the traveling pains and the bad knees of aging,
I overall just like being alive – in this body – in this world – with my friends,” he said.
“I feel my heart is open like never before and I’m very comfortable with where I am
in life. I just like living – enjoying what I’m doing and spending time with friends –
going to the movies and out for dinner.”
With a lifelong adherence to physical fitness, Chamberlain said he doesn’t feel or sleep well if he doesn’t exercise in some way or another every day. “I also eat reasonably well,” he added. “I do eat just about everything – anything I want – but I do include a lot of vegetables and fruits and I like to make sure I get enough sleep. I am fairly careful about the practical side of taking care of my body, but I’m not a maniac about it.”
As for his current project, Chamberlain said “The Heiress,” based on Henry James’ “Washington Square,” is a very good adaptation of the novel. “The dynamics of the family are fascinating,” he said. “I think family dynamics are invariably fascinating – in real life as well as in a theatrical production. And in this particular family, the dynamics are heighted to melodrama. The show is an extraordinary combination of characters with various motivations, and I really enjoy playing the role of Dr. Sloper because he is
such a complex man who has so many sides and makes so many mistakes, despite
Asked if, after all his years of acting, he is still learning new things about his craft, Chamberlain said “The Heiress” has provided him with a newfound level of freedom in
the development of his character. “That was surprising to me – that during rehearsals
I experienced this freedom – something like I never experienced before,” he revealed.
“I believe that comes from having great trust in the director and cast. That level of trust has given me the freedom to incorporate very spur-of-the-moment things that, up to this time, I may have been hesitant to try.”
Pressed about employing any sort of pre-curtain ritual before walking out onstage, Chamberlain said he has always made it a point to mentally become friends with the audience before stepping out of the wings. “It’s a mindset thing,” he said. “It’s almost
a meditative thing – that all these extraordinary people have come to see our show.
I put myself in a mindset in which I am amongst friends. Thinking that helps me
to be very at home on the stage.”
© 2012 David Laurell
© Photo Jim Cox
Richard Chamberlain plays the monster of 'The Heiress'
'If you can get them hissing at you, it's a nice feeling,' says the veteran stage actor.
Richard Chamberlain treats fellow actor Heather Tom abominably. Without apology.
Night after night. On stage, that is.
The tall, silver-haired veteran of stage and screen is heading the cast of “The Heiress,” the classic drama by Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on the 1881 Henry James novel, “Washington Square,” running through May 20 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Chamberlain plays Dr. Sloper, the wealthy, domineering father of shy Catherine (Tom), who can't compare in his eyes to the vivacious mother who died giving birth to her.
When impoverished suitor Morris turns up, Dr. Sloper believes that he can only be interested in Catherine for the fortune she will inherit.
“His relationship with Catherine is extremely complicated,” Chamberlain said of his character during a recent interview. Even within the context of the patriarchal and puritanical Victorian era, he said, Dr. Sloper “is very controlling and possessive.”
And when Chamberlain's cutting remarks to Tom's sensitive and vulnerable Catherine elicit audible disapproval from audiences, he couldn't be more pleased.
“Playing unsympathetic is very rewarding,” Chamberlain said, laughing. “If you can get them hissing at you, it's a nice feeling.”
A rich character study, “The Heiress” is widely known as the Oscar-winning 1949
Universal Pictures film adaptation that starred Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson
and Montgomery Clift. The drama received the 1995 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in its most recent Broadway outing.
In director Dámaso Rodriguez's fresh new staging at the Pasadena Playhouse, Chamberlain and Tom are joined by Julia Duffy as foolishly romantic Aunt Penniman
and Steve Coombs as Morris, the enigmatic suitor.
A handsome and remarkably youthful 78, Chamberlain is a commanding presence on
John Iacovelli's opulent set depicting the interior of the mid-19th-century Sloper home and the doctor's own cold masculinity. It was a very different kind of physician, however, that kick-started the actor's career more than 50 years ago.
Chamberlain was the Brad Pitt heartthrob of his day after landing the title role in the
“Dr. Kildare” TV series that ran from 1961-66. That “great training ground,” he said,
gave him the entrée he needed for a bold and risky career move: playing Hamlet on
the English stage in the Birmingham Repertory Company's 1969 production of the Shakespeare classic. The performance received warm critical acclaim.
“I was terrified they were going to tear me to pieces,” Chamberlain said. A year later,
he reprised the role in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production opposite Sir John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and Margaret Leighton.
During his varied career on screen and on Broadway, Off Broadway and in regional theater, Chamberlain has also played Richard II, Tchaikovsky, Lord Byron, Cyrano de Bergerac and Henry Higgins. He was Reverend Shannon in “Night of the Iguana,”
Wild Bill Hickok in Joseph Papp's production of “Fathers & Sons” and starred in
Peter Weir's “The Last Wave.”
Among the actor's iconic TV mini-series and movies are “Shogun,” “The Thorn Birds” and “Wallenberg: A Hero's Story.” More recently, he has appeared on the BBC series “Hustle,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Leverage” — and the
Adam Sandler comedy, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.”
Born in Los Angeles, Chamberlain always knew that he wanted to be an actor.
“I was fascinated by fantasy,” he said. “I didn't like real life much. I loved going to
the movies and I thought, whoa, that's where I want to live. I don't want to live in
real life at all.”
Chamberlain, who came out publicly as gay at age 69 in his autobiography, “Shattered Love: A Memoir” — a profound experience that gave him “a whole new freedom just
to be” — has also talked openly about his childhood with his own domineering father,
an alcoholic who eventually achieved sobriety and became a force in Alcoholics Anonymous. The senior Chamberlain remains a rich source of inspiration for roles
like Dr. Sloper, the actor said.
As a Pomona College student, however, Chamberlain was “too shy and inhibited” to
enroll in the theater program there and became an art major instead, “moonlighting”
in the drama department. After “small acting successes” in his senior year, “I thought, boy, I can do this,” he said.
In 1959, Chamberlain and other students of noted acting coach Jeff Corey co-founded Company of Angels, a theater ensemble still active today. Chamberlain said he would
like to look the company up after finishing “The Heiress” and his next theater project, “The Exorcist,” opening July 11 at the Geffen Playhouse.
The actor has pursued art as well. “I'm attracted to visual beauty and a certain meaningfulness that might lurk underneath,” he said of the creative impulse that feeds
his pastel, watercolor and oil works of figurative and graphic art.
“You can tell that Richard is loving the work and this time in his career,” said director Rodriguez. “He has fun every day, and with him as the leader in the rehearsal room,
the energy for the entire process is very warm and collaborative.”
The admiration is mutual. “Dámaso has done a wonderful job with this play. He has a stunning visual sense, and he's great at working with actors,” said Chamberlain, who
is equally complimentary about his co-stars. Heather Tom “is superb, Julia Duffy is very funny and sweet, and the young man, Stephen Coombs, is terrific. The whole cast
Not that the behind-the-scenes love fest prevents Chamberlain from being decidedly unpleasant to his co-stars on stage.
“It's quite fun,” he said, laughing. “Actors get to explore parts of their personality
that bank tellers don't. It's part of our job. It's very interesting to actually let loose
one's cruelty and malevolence in a safe situation. But,” he added, “I would never do it
in real life.”
© 2012 Lynne Heffley Pasadena Sun
The Doctor Is In!
For an entire generation, actor Richard Chamberlain was the dreamiest star imaginable. With a career-defining role as hunky Dr. Kildare, not to mention classic miniseries
“The Thorn Birds” and “Shogun”, Chamberlain, now 78 years young, still has that gleam
in his eye of a larger-than-life presence. Currently he’s starring alongside soap opera maven Heather Tom in The Heiress at The Pasadena Playhouse.
Based on Henry James’ 1881 novel Washington Square, The Heiress is a spellbinding drama about a plain-looking young woman (Heather Tom) who stands to inherit a fortune from her ailing physician father (Chamberlain) and must deal with his well-meaning but overbearing suspicion when a handsome and penniless young man proposes marriage. The father is certain this new suitor is only after his daughter’s inheritance. A masterpiece of love, deception and betrayal, The Heiress remains a shining example of a true theatrical achievement.
“This is a role that I have wanted to do for years,” says Heather Tom, who also stars on The Bold and the Beautiful. “I’ve always wanted to work with The Pasadena Playhouse and when this opportunity came up, I pretty much would have given up my first born (laughs) to be in this production.” “I love this play,” adds co-star Richard Chamberlain. “And I find the character that I’m playing fascinating. He’s so strange and complicated
and curious and powerful in a way and weak in a way. And I love working at the Playhouse.” It seems Chamberlain, a three-time Golden Globe winner and a four-time Emmy nominee, has carved an incredible career for himself playing priests and doctors. In fact, he plays another priest in his latest film, the hilarious Perfect Family opposite Kathleen Turner (in theaters May 11).
“That’s a bit of exaggeration,” Chamberlain points out with a hearty laugh about his penchant for priest and doctor roles. “Out of the ten thousand parts I’ve played I think I’ve played two priests. Certainly the priest in The Perfect Family and the priest in
“The Thorn Birds” are not comparable.”
Chamberlain admits he does channel his father, a heavy drinker during the actor’s youth, into the role of Dr. Austin Sloper in The Heiress. Willing to do whatever it takes to bring forth the finest performance, the venerable star confesses he still gets butterflies.
“Nerves are part of the game,” Chamberlain explains. “They never go away. Once you
get sailing in the part they sort of fade away, but in the beginning I can get very, very nervous. But I love being on stage and being in communication with the audience.
Going from beginning to end, instead of all little bits and pieces as you do in film,
is a very gratifying experience.”
Both co-stars are anxious for audiences to take the production to heart. “I think any good theater piece or work of art inspires discussion,” Tom points out, “and I hope people have strong opinions at the end, one way or the other about the characters’ motivations. If you can spark conversation and debate, then you’ve done your job.”
“I hope that people will try on different endings in their minds,” Chamberlain adds. “There are a lot of possibilities for a variety of outcomes in this family situation and the one that happens may not have been the most fortuitous.”
© Jose Martinez
© Photos Starla Fortunato
Los Angeles Theater Review: THE HEIRESS
TAUGHT BY MASTERS
William Faulkner might or might not have quipped that Henry James was one of the nicest old ladies he’d ever met. Faulkner definitely did call James both priggish and among the best of novelists, and even if the old-lady line proves spurious, it sounds enough like both of them that one wishes it were true. Regardless, the Southern sensualist could joke affectionately about the Yankee moralist, since Faulkner’s work
shows his appreciation of the old-ladyish capacity for reflection, wisdom and
occasionally perverse observation. Nobody could write characters like
Miss Grierson in “A Rose for Emily” or Granny in "The Unvanquished"
without an abiding love of the ruminating elder female. It’s undeniable that
Henry James fits a certain ideal of the web-spinning spinster; sufficiently
“bachelor” to have prompted a great deal of speculation, and nosy and stubborn and
old-fashioned: no argument. But his gift for motivational study rivaled that of his psychologist brother William, such that today it’s difficult to say which genius offers
the more enduring insights into mental anguish. Unfortunately for posterity, many
of James’ novels are too long, and much too preciously and densely written, to appeal
to readers eager for quick satisfaction. Washington Square, a short novel published in 1880, still falls almost deliberately into this category.
Fortunately for everyone, in 1947, husband and wife playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted that novel’s most melodramatically Freudian elements into a lovely, agonizing little play about how young ladies get to be old maids, called The Heiress. The new Pasadena Playhouse production offers a brilliant corrective to the stuffy revivals of classic works so frequently seen in the Southland. This is how to treat a classic: assemble
an A-1 cast and let it play. With this fine, funny take on a venerable drama,
director Dámaso Rodriguez proves that tragedy works best in counterpoint.
An arrogant doctor, his cowed daugwhter, and the young man who comes between them in upper-crust 19th Century New York constitute the basic triangle of this beautifully crafted horror. Austin Sloper (Richard Chamberlain), eminent in business and society,
has raised the awkward Catherine (Heather Tom) in the deep shadow of her dead mother, the one passion of his life. Her Aunt Lavinia (Julia Duffy), unreconciled to her widowhood, is eager to see the girl married away from her stifling homelife; she encourages the charming, penniless Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) to court Catherine against Dr Sloper’s wishes. This much is the stuff of a froth one might consume at an airport bar, but mix in the doctor’s unconscious erotic delight in suppressing his daughter’s emergent personality, and you have a complex bouquet; add a dash of sexual
longing to Lavinia’s interest in Morris, and a garnish of fortune-hunting
to that suitor’s intent, and you have a bracing aperitif to carry you
through your journey.
The play works after sixty-odd years for many reasons. It’s dramatically perfect – every plot point is important, and every character is affected by terrible mistakes of accident and purpose – yet it affords shades of interpretation; it gives actors great chewy mouthfuls of opportunity, and still it isn’t talky; it’s long enough to seem worth the price
of admission, but, as it is well-handled, it feels much quicker than its running time.
And as these excellent actors and this astute director show, it’s not only a smart play
but a very witty one.
Just as Shakespeare places a ridiculous speech about drunken fornication before the discovery of Duncan’s murder in Macbeth, the Goetzes write mannered, penetrating domestic banter even as the weight of tragedy gains momentum in The Heiress.
When the play doesn’t provide funny little bits of business, the director and the actors do, as when the maid Maria (Elizabeth Tobias) is at first confused by, then slowly comprehends, the devious nature of her instructions. Humor allows an audience to relax, the better to feel the pain of the drama; the chocolate-covered pill has rarely gone
down as well as it does here.
Richard Chamberlain’s many prior characterizations of earnest young men will no doubt inform most playgoers’ appreciation of his elegantly monstrous Dr Sloper. This cultivated man, so clear in his assessment of other people and so unaware of his own sinister nature, stands tall and crumbling at the same time, a figure of terror and of pity. Pitching his voice low and keeping his spine erect, Mr Chamberlain nevertheless conveys the misery of his condition. He is not young, and will not outlive his disappointments.
He is not an evil man, but he does great harm. He is not sorry. And he will never change. It’s a whole person up there, as complete a character as one is likely to see in a potboiler, the work of an actor who has been getting better for sixty years.
Ms Tom is very nearly as good; her period manner goes in and out, but not enough to distract more than momentarily from her essential rightness for this part. When unnerved as the artless ingenue, she is spectacularly affecting, and her steely resolve once the worm turns is frightening in its implications. Ms Duffy plays the dramatic spectrum with tact and ease, a lightly comic character who reveals a lonely fear at her core. Among
the flawless supporting cast, Jill Van Velzer stands out in her single scene as the suitor Morris’ loving yet ambivalent sister, as does Ms Tobias in her tiny but extraordinarily
Mr Rodriguez’s direction, so confident as to be invisible, highlights what’s interesting and graceful in the play’s every nuance. He steers actors of disparate backgrounds to act as if they’re all in the same play, which one might take for granted; but to see ten plays in
Los Angeles in which film and television actors play with classical stage actors and improvisation-based performers is to appreciate what Mr Rodriguez has done here.
He quietly creates moments without slowing or discombobulating the action, designs stage pictures that are natural yet balanced, and even directs the scene changes to flow
with the story.
One might argue that he allowed Mr Coombs to rush his playing a bit in his final scene, thereby robbing the subsequent climax of its most unambiguously tragic facet; this would be no small criticism, but it also might be a single-performance aberration not to be repeated. It surely would not be cause not to see such a magnificent production.
John Iacovelli’s mansion set looks like it weighs ten thousand pounds, especially under Brian Gale’s light; Leah Piehl’s costumes add to this sense of refined gravity, transporting a modern eye to a past vision of our reality. Even as sniffy an old lady as Henry James could not have said much against such solid work.
© 2012 Jason Rohrer Stage and Cinema
Richard chamberlain in ‘The Heiress’
Youth will have its day, but there's something to be said for old pros. Richard Chamberlain, who back in the day commanded the small screen in "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds," shows a company of whippersnappers what command is all about in Pasadena Playhouse's revival of "The Heiress." The younger generation isn't up to his level, but Ruth and Augustus Goetz's venerable 1947 warhorse comes through anyway for good old-fashioned entertainment, overlong but absorbing.
Though the vehicle adapts austere, tony Henry James's "Washington Square," it's always held a greater debt to low melodrama than high literature. (Good thing, too; James was
a lousy dramatist.) Repressed, timorous Catherine Sloper (Heather Tom) is tied to metaphorical railroad tracks by not one but two antagonists: the autocratic father (Chamberlain) contemptuous of the pallid progeny who killed his beloved wife
in childbirth; and a mysterious suitor (Steve Coombs) with romantic patter and ambiguous motives.
This Pauline's perils keep an audience rapt even when, as in Pasadena, the actress overuses the same stifled giggle and breathlessness on line after line after line. It's
a pity helmer Damaso Rodriguez couldn't or wouldn't push her to greater variety of voice and manner. For that matter, Coombs tries so hard he tips his hand, and would do better with a subtler seduction of the fly into his spiderweb.
But Chamberlain shows everyone the power of deceptive ease.
As Dr. Sloper, the former Dr. Kildare wields the energy and technique of a thesp half his age (nearing 80). This tyrant is much less neurotically haunted, more blithe than Ralph Richardson's celebrated turn in the 1949 movie. Chamberlain's controlling thumb on everyone's lives is even crueller in its offhandedness.
Better still, he's able to maintain the illusion of being in daughter's corner until the very last moment when, illness clouding his judgment, he commits the fatal reveal which animates the latter third of the evening. Thesp earns the audience's hisses, but engages our hearts too in this intriguing take on a complex role.
It's all effectively framed within John Iacovelli's drawing room set, conveying a real sense of psychological enclosure beyond its elegant photorealism. One entrapment element is unfortunate: Because the upstage landing is narrow and obscured by a wide settee, key confrontations like the act one closer are lost, and Catherine's famous walk up the stairs barely registers.
© 2012 Bob Verini Variety
Richard Chamberlain, Heather Tom riveting in 'The Heiress'
At the peak of Richard Chamberlain’s thrillingly malevolent performance in “The Heiress,” the audience at the Pasadena Playhouse started hissing. If we had had tomatoes,
we probably would have thrown them. The theater might want to frisk future ticketholders for produce, or add an anger-management session to the bill: It’s that
hard to handle the emotions provoked by this gorgeously directed and acted revival.
You might not think you’ll be so invested in the marital prospects of a young woman
in New York society in 1850, especially since Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s “The Heiress” (1947) is based on the novel “Washington Square” (1881) by Henry James, a writer whose nuanced investigations of human emotion are likelier to leave readers
puzzled or melancholy than primed for a brawl.
But the plight of Catherine Sloper, played here by the magnificent Heather Tom,
will reach through time, place, gender, class and prose style to rip your heart out. Director Damaso Rodriguez has grounded the play so authentically in its milieu that the tragic love story, far from seeming quaint, develops with an almost unbearable urgency.
Catherine lives with her father, Dr. August Sloper (Chamberlain), in a house in
the prestigious Washington Square, realized with breathtaking grandeur and an airy blue palette by John Iacovelli’s beautiful set. Dr. Sloper’s adored wife died in childbirth. Although he has devoted himself to raising their daughter, as he complains to his widowed sister, Lavinia (Julia Duffy), he sees Catherine as “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise.”
When Morris Townsend (the darling Steve Coombs) comes courting, Dr. Sloper concludes that the charming but penniless young man is after Catherine’s money. He sets out to break up the lovers, in the process revealing his contempt for his daughter so cruelly that even the best-bred audiences will have a hard time controlling themselves.
I got through some scenes by telling myself that Catherine was a Jamesian metaphor for the creative spirit. But no: Tom makes her a heartbreakingly believable, sympathetic girl — not “dull,” as she has been taught to consider herself, but an introvert in a world that values easy charm. Glamorous in real life, the Emmy-winning soap opera actress manages to look dowdy with a flat hairdo and luxurious but unflattering clothes (excellently designed by Leah Piehl) as she flawlessly commands the arc of Catherine’s transformation.
Chamberlain gives Dr. Sloper impeccable manners, powerful charisma, a cold intelligence — and a light of madness in his famous blue eyes. Like the most frightening evildoers,
he believes that he is doing the right thing. There is no violence onstage, barely a raised voice, only the clash of two subjective truths. Tom and Chamberlain, ably assisted by the rest of the skillful cast, make the outcome inevitable, convincing and unforgettable.
© 2012 Margaret Gray Los Angeles Times
The Heiress is a Perfectly Nuanced Production
A well crafted, finely acted production of THE HEIRESS by Ruth and Augustus Goetz opened tonight at the Pasadena playhouse. Directed by DÁMASO RODRIGUEZ , the story deals with Catherine Sloper (HEATHER TOM) who stands to inherit a fortune from her ailing physician father (RICHARD CHAMBERLAIN).
A plain-looking, shy young woman, Catherine lives a quiet life under her father’s
cold-hearted scrutiny. Though he says he cares for her, he considers her plain and uninteresting. Dr. Roper even blames his daughter for the death of his beloved wife
who passed away during childbirth.
When an opportunistic young suitor, Morris Townsend, (STEVE COOMBS) comes calling, the good doctor is certain that the penniless young man has proposed marriage in order to get his hands on Catherine’s inheritance. And this he he won’t stand for.
Catherine is too much in love to pay much attention to her father’s protests. Though Morris is indeed the first man to ever pay attention to her, she agrees to a cooling off period by joining her father on his up-coming trip to Europe.
After a slightly slow set up the story compellingly comes to a head upon Catherine and
the doctor’s return to New York. Before long the young woman realizes that she is more like her father than she would ever dare admit. From here the production smoothly
brings the drama to it’s psychologically nuanced and heartbreaking conclusion with
no one ultimately ending up a winner.
Director Rodriguez has done an excellent job here and has managed to find the perfect cast for this play. Chamberlain is powerful as the malevolent doctor who schemes to keep his daughter in line. He is the backbone of the production.
Steve Coombs as Morris Townsend hits all the right notes as the young man whose true intentions are not immediately clear. Even when his cards would seem to be on the table, Morris plays his best hand to hold onto the prize.
JULIA DUFFY is a strong presence as Catherine’s aunt–but it is Heather Tom as Catherine who has the strongest arc in terms of both story and performance. Starting out as a respectful, soft-spoken introvert, Ms. Tom slowly reveals Catherine’s hidden power and determination as she challenges and eventually outsmarts both the men in her life.
The scenic design by JOHN IACOVELLI deserve a special mention. It is stunning and highly effective. It almost feels like a set from an old Hollywood movie.
Costumes by LEAH PIEHL are impressive. Lighting design by BRIAN GALE helps set the perfect mood.
© 2012 Peter Foldy HollywoodRevealed.com
The Heiress may have reached the ripe old age of sixty-five, but you’d hardly know
it from the latest revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 Broadway hit, adapted
from Henry James’ classic novel Washington Square and currently engrossing and delighting audiences in equal measure at the Pasadena Playhouse.
The Heiress in question is Miss Catherine Sloper (Heather Tom), the only child of
the wealthy Dr. August Sloper (Richard Chamberlain) and hardly the apple of her father’s eye. Rapidly approaching thirty, Catherine has yet to walk down the aisle, or even receive a proposal of marriage, something not uncommon in 2012 but the kiss of
lifelong spinsterhood in 1850 New York City.
We gather that something is amiss in the Sloper home from the play’s opening moments, when Dr. Sloper advises parlor maid Maria (Elizabeth Tobias) to have a lot of children. “Give yourself more than a single chance,” he tells her.
Catherine, we soon learn, suffers from a painful, even crippling shyness. “The last time
I had guests she disappeared into the pantry four successive times,” the doctor tells his sister Lavinia (Julia Duffy), one of the few people around whom Catherine forgets her timidity. To her aunt, Catherine can recount how she was able to tell some foolish women who didn’t know the difference between veal and beef that veal comes “from a nursing calf, and just when it is the most adorable, most touching … we eat it!”
Later, however, when Aunt Lavinia asks her to repeat the story to good doctor,
she can scarcely get a word out.
To paraphrase an old axiom, with a father like Dr. Sloper, who needs enemies?
What kind of parent would see his daughter dressed in her late mother’s favorite color
and tell her with a bluntness bordering on cruelty, “But Catherine, your mother was dark. She dominated the color.”
When Catherine’s cousin Marian (Anneliese van der Pol) and her fiancé Arthur
(Chris Reinacher) arrive with an unexpected guest, Arthur’s handsome cousin Morris (Steve Coombs), Catherine is worse than shy; she becomes positively graceless.
“Are you as great a tease as your cousin, Miss Sloper?” Morris asks her, and instead
of flirting back, all Catherine can utter is a blunt, “No.” End of conversation.
Morris, it turns out, is a distant cousin who has “used up” his very small inheritance
and now lives with his older sister (Jill Van Velzer), unlike the very wealthy Catherine, who already receives $10,000 a year from her mother’s estate and is set to inherit another $20,000 a year upon her father’s death. (That adds up to well over three
quarters of a million dollars per year in today’s money!)
When Morris begins to pursue a courtship with Catherine, the young woman is in seventh heaven, her father not so. Clearly, Morris Townsend is after Catherine’s money. For what other reason would the man be interested in such a dull girl?
So as not to spoil the element of surprise for anyone unfamiliar with either the
James novel or its adaptation as a play or movie (Olivia de Havilland won the Oscar
for playing Catherine on the screen in 1949), nothing more will be revealed here,
but whether you are seeing The Heiress with no idea what will happen next, or watching
it and waiting eagerly for what you know is coming, the play (particularly in a production as fine as this one) has nary a dull moment, despite its two and half hour running time.
Much of this comes from the crackerjack script the Goetzes wrote back in the late 1940s, though it certainly helps to have Dámaso Rodriguez in the director’s chair, once again proving himself as gifted at bringing the classics to fresh, modern life as he is at the edgy contemporary dramas his Furious Theatre Company is famous for. It helps too that Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps and casting director Michael Donovan, CSA, have come up with a cast of L.A.-based actors that can give any Broadway ensemble a run for their money.
It’s hard to imagine another contemporary actress more right for Catherine than Tom, best known to audiences of daytime TV drama but one terrific stage actress as well. Camouflaging her own attractiveness under an unflattering hairdo and dour pout, Tom
lets us see the broken child grown to unfulfilled adulthood, the pain at being so unloved
by a heartless father, and the joy of discovering, or at least being made to believe, that she is indeed something special in the eyes of the man she adores.
Coombs, one of L.A. theater’s busiest and best young leading men since 2006’s A Picture Of Dorian Gray brought him to local attention, gives us a Morris who could turn any girl’s head, radiating charm, charisma, and sex appeal in equal measure.
Chamberlain, who has come a long, long way since his evenings as TV’s Dr. Kildare, resists the temptation to make Dr. Sloper anything but an insensitive beast of a father,
a man capable of describing his daughter as “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise” who “killed her mother in getting born.” Ouch!
As she did in the Playhouse’s 2009 revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, the divine Duffy takes a role that countless other actresses have played before her (Miriam Hopkins and Frances Sternhagen among them) and made it indelibly, unforgettably her own. Those who recall Duffy as Newhart’s spoiled rich girl Stephanie Vanderkellen or
Designing Women’s prissy Allison Sugarbaker are in for a particular treat at Duffy’s rich, multi-layered work.
A pair of local treasures, Gigi Bermingham as Catherine’s Aunt Elizabeth and Van Velzer as Morris’s sister, shine as brightly in featured roles as they do in their customary starring turns, and van der Pol, so marvelous in musical mode in Vanities a few years
back, makes for a radiant Marian. Reinacher is fine too as van der Pol’s intended, and Tobias makes the very most of her moments as maid Maria (pronounced Mariah).
You will not find a more gorgeous scenic design in town than John Iacovelli’s elegant, detailed 1850 Washington Square residence nor more gorgeous period fashions than
those designed by Leah Piehl for this production. Brian Gale’s lighting is a stunner too, with Doug Newell’s sound design combining mood-setting music and realistic effects. (There’s nothing more heartbreaking that a horse-drawn carriage that drives on past
your door when you’re expecting it to stop.) Heathyr Verhoef is production stage
manager and Mary Michele Miner stage manager.
The Heiress is that rarity, a play that can be enjoyed equally by those experiencing it for the first time as by those seeing it for the umpteenth. For the former, there is the joy
of discovery and surprise; for the latter, the pleasure in anticipating those oh-so satisfying moments we know are coming. The Heiress may have reached retirement age this year, but at the Pasadena Playhouse, she hardly looks her age at all.
© 2012 Steven Stanley Stage Scene LA
The Heiress at the Pasadena Playhouse
Adapted in 1947 by playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz from Henry James' 1881 novel, Washington Square, The Heiress tells the story of a plain, withdrawn young woman who lives under the domineering rule of her physician father in socially-conscious mid-nineteenth century New York. Now, 62 years after its original production at the Playhouse, the Tony- and Academy Award-winner returns in a sumptuous production with an appealing cast.
Catherine Sloper (Heather Tom) would rather stay home and stitch samplers than attend social events with people her age, causing no end of consternation for her physician father (Richard Chamberlain) who is highly disappointed in her behavior and lack of grace. Catherine has accepted her lot in life, but Sloper still hopes to coax her out of her shell and into the arms of proper society.
When visiting relatives bring the attractive, smooth-talking Morris Townsend
(Steve Coombs) into their home, Catherine is instantly smitten. To her surprise, Townshend professes an attraction to her as well, and soon they're planning a wedding. Dr. Sloper refuses to grant his permission, however, convinced that the penniless Townsend is a fortune-hunter who is only after Catherine's inheritance. Meanwhile, Sloper's widowed sister, Lavinia (Julia Duffy), attempts to intervene, recognizing
that this may be Catherine's only chance at true happiness.
Chamberlain has a field day with Sloper, biting off his lines and playing the doctor with
a dry wit even as he's being horribly cruel to his daughter. Duffy is a delight as the meddlesome aunt whose interest in Catherine's happiness barely conceals a perverse delight in manipulating others, and Coombs is convincing as the unctuous lothario who recognizes a kindred spirit in Lavinia.
Tom is a revelation in the key role of Catherine, whose transformation from socially inept innocent to hard-hearted lady of the house is executed with great skill. Director Damaso Rodriguez wisely pumps up the humor in the first act before digging in for the more intense conclusion, bringing a freshness to the material that makes it more appealing
to modern audiences.
The production's technical aspects are excellent. From the moment the curtain opens on John Iacovelli's jewel box of a set, the audience is transported to another era,
aided immensely by Leah Piehl's attractive costuming. Brian Gale's lighting design
nicely delineates the passage of time and season, and Doug Newell's aural enhancement is also fine.
© 2012 Stage Mage
Richard Chamberlain’s Latest Doctor and His Heiress
Gigi Bermingham, Steve Coombs, Elizabeth Tobias (in back), Julia Duffy,
Richard Chamberlain, Heather Tom, Anneliese van der Pol and Chris Reinacher
When Richard Chamberlain was about to enter Beverly Hills High School,
American playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz were adapting an 1880 novel
by Henry James. Washington Square evolved into The Heiress and opened
on Broadway in 1947. It ran 410 performances, with Basil Rathbone
as Dr. Austin Sloper. Now Chamberlain is stepping into Dr. Sloper’s
shoes at the Pasadena Playhouse.
The path to Pasadena began in Pomona. “I was in a lot of drama
productions at Pomona College, as scared as I was,”
Chamberlain remembers in the wood-paneled Playhouse library.
“Some talent scouts had come from Paramount to see a production
I was in and [they] asked me out for an interview. They wanted
to sign me to a seven-year contract. I was just this little kid!”
Photo Pasadena Playhouse
Chamberlain looks younger than his age implies. At 78 his hair is gray, yet full.
His sideburns have formed into mid-19th-century chops and his body is lean,
honed by an exercise regimen of swimming, weights and stretching. “I looked
more like a high school student then than a college student, and I was
trying to negotiate the terms of a deal. Of course, they totally snowed me.
But I got my draft notice, so that saved me from signing a disastrous contract.”
It was 1956 and the Army sent Chamberlain to Korea, three years after the war’s end.
“Thank God. I don’t think I ever would’ve survived a war. I was a company clerk,
which sounds sort of twee, but it wasn’t. It was a very complicated job, about 30 miles
from Seoul in an agricultural district. But it was very beautiful with the rice paddies
and villages.” Beauty aside, he did not enjoy his Army experience and left it two
years later as a staff sergeant. Back in Los Angeles, Chamberlain decided to pursue
acting. His close college friend, screenwriter Robert Towne (The Last Detail,
Chinatown, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Mission: Impossible and its first sequel ),
knew acting coach Jeff Corey. “Bob and I were in Jeff’s class together for a while.
I was taking singing lessons and dance and ballet lessons, which I loved.
I was very busy. I started working fairly quickly.” At 23, Chamberlain co-founded
the LA-based theater ensemble, Company of Angels. He also started landing small roles
in television and an apartment in a “risky” neighborhood near Western Avenue
and Santa Monica Boulevard for $60 a month. “I was working almost enough to pay
the rent. I’d get a loan every once in a while from my folks.”
The role that landed Chamberlain on the map, Dr. James Kildare, came quickly,
although it nearly did not come at all. “It was the break of all time.
There was a guy in high school, George [La Mer], whose father had been
a movie executive. George became an assistant to the man who ran MGM
and saw my picture in a players’ director one day and wondered what I was up to.”
He invited Chamberlain to a general interview. “They hired me for a western,
The Paradise Kid. I did that pilot as the Paradise Kid, but it didn’t sell because
westerns were out by then.” A year later, the search began for a young Dr. Kildare.
Lew Ayres had played him in movies from 1938 to1942 before producers eliminated
him in favor of the older physician, Dr. Gillespie, portrayed by Lionel Barrymore.
“They looked all over town, casting and casting and casting and not finding anyone.
Finally George pulled the pilot out of the vault and looked at it and said ‘that’s it,
that’s the guy.’ Isn’t that amazing? It’s miraculous.” Chamberlain says he has no
idea what he possessed that the others did not. His hunch, however, is that they
were looking for a very 1950s person. “That’s what I was, even though it was the
early ‘60s. Well-mannered and serious and all that.” Dr. Kildare was an NBC fixture
from 1961-1966. “Kildare’s charm was that he really cared about his patients and that’s
what made him so attractive to people. They all wanted a doctor who
would care about them and get involved in their lives.” Far less formal and
distant than Chamberlain himself.
When I went to England [in 1968 to work and study voice], I felt right at
home. One of the first things Jeff Corey said to me was my formality was an
interesting protection mechanism.” Chamberlain admits he had no idea how
to be himself. “I came into this world, I think, with a tremendous lack of
self-confidence, but coupled with a huge ambition. I got busy creating
a persona that wasn’t all that real.” He lived a dual life — a closeted gay
man off-screen and a leading romantic, heterosexual man on-screen.
“Being gay in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s simply wasn’t an option. I was very
frightened of being outed. Being gay was worse in a way than being a traitor
or a murderer. It was just not a possibility at all, so I grew up with a
tremendous amount of fear.” It wasn’t until 2003 that Chamberlain came out
publicly in his book, Shattered Love: A Memoir. But he has been in a relationship
with actor and writer Martin Rabbett since 1976, when they were both part
of a production of The Night of the Iguana on Broadway. The couple appeared
together in Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold in 1986. “The book
started out being about love and how we live our lives,” says Chamberlain.
“I thought at the time I knew something that was worth sharing.” He laughs.
“My editor and my publisher and my friends all said that if I was going to talk
about love, I would have to talk about being gay because it’s such an important
part of my life experience. I didn’t want to, because I knew that’s all the
interviewers would want to talk about, being gay in Hollywood.”
Chamberlain and Rabbett had built a home along the beach on Maui.
“I was writing in this little room at the top of the house. I can’t really talk
about this without being moved. It was almost as if an angel came
in the room. It was as if she put her hand on my heart and said
‘it’s over, kid. It’s over. There’s no problem here.’ Being gay is one
of the least interesting facts about a person. It’s totally benign.”
It occurred to Chamberlain that being gay or straight tells one nothing
about the actual quality of the individual. “I absorbed that totally in that
moment.” There was a lot of publicity over the upcoming DVD release of
Shogun and The Thorn Birds, two of Chamberlain’s popular miniseries.
His publisher wanted to rush the book’s release to ride the publicity wave.
“Suddenly I was on Larry King talking about being gay in Hollywood without
any fear at all. It was miraculous.” He appeared elsewhere, including on
Bill O’Reilly’s show. “My friends talked me into it. He said, you and Rock Hudson
were leading men in the heterosexual world, what was it like coming out?”
After he answered, he says O’Reilly stopped there and moved on to the book.
“It was probably my best interview. I got to talk about the central question
the book asks, which is, would it be possible for us to live our lives
open-heartedly no matter what life throws at us? My theoretical answer
is yes. I believe all our power and intelligence comes from love."
Chamberlain does not believe in a deity, in contrast with what his late
father experienced later in his life. “My dad was a repressive person, as is
Dr. Sloper (his character in The Heiress). I didn’t experience him as loving.
I experienced him as terrifying. He was a big man, loud when he wanted to be,
and domineering. My nature wasn’t like that at all. He was really rough to deal with.”
But Charles Chamberlain became an avid speaker at Alcoholics Anonymous
conventions, where a “higher power” is recognized, sought out and
relied upon. Could that angel who tapped on Chamberlain’s
heart have been his father? “Of course it could’ve been him.
Nobody knows what happens after death, but I’ve talked to people
who seem to, not exactly channel, but be in touch with the unseen.”
He asked one such person, whom he found quite convincing, about his parents.
“I said I would like to apologize to my mother for some event and this being,
who spoke through this person, said she’s almost like pure love now.
She just totally, totally, totally understands and is for you and with you.
That’s a rather sweet possibility. I love the thought that after death we can be
helpful to people in life.” An octogenarian in two years, Chamberlain complains
his body is starting to fall apart, noting bad knees. "That's really annoying,
but I find that my quality of life seems to be improving." His 70s,
is the favorite decade of his life. So far. Compared to the
distant, formal man many people knew, he is now happier and
more accesssible than ever.
“Time goes by and you experience life, and I went to a lot of spiritual
groups and things like that. I have had wonderful friends – boy,
I’ve been so lucky in terms of finding wonderful people to be
my ‘next’ family.” Chamberlain has an older brother and a couple of
nephews he sees infrequently. When Chamberlain and Rabbett sold
their Hawaiian home a few years ago, Chamberlain moved to
Los Angeles and began working almost right away. Rabbett now
is in San Francisco, Chamberlain says. “We’re curiously not
living together at the moment, but we’re better friends than
we’ve ever been.” After Chamberlain concludes The Heiress
with Heather Tom and Julia Duffy (directed by Dámaso Rodriguez)
he adorns a priest’s robe, as he had done for The Thorn Birds.
This time it’s for The Exorcist at the Geffen Playhouse,
to be directed by John Doyle. “After that, I really would just
like to be on my own for a while and paint some pictures.”
(Chamberlain’s art gallery here.) “It’s hard to pick up a phone or
turn on my computer or pay a bill right now. I force myself to do it.
I’m living most of my life in 1850 and then have to come
back and take care of life in 2012. It’s almost like being
©Steve Julian LA Stage Times
The Heiress is an American classic and so is the Pasadena Playhouse which first produced it in 1950. One might say the same for the leading man Richard Chamberlain who plays Dr. Sloper. All three are timeless.
Director Damaso Rodriguez keeps the pace lively and the play, written in 1947 by
Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted from Henry James' novel, Washington Square, shows no signs of aging. Perhaps because it's set in pre-Civil War 1850 we more willingly suspend our disbelief but the pain and the passion are blazingly contemporary.
It's the story of Catherine Sloper, the doctor's daughter (Heather Tom),. She's a distressingly plain girl who has the misfortune to be not only the daughter of a beauty
but of a dead one, whose every trait is idolized by the widower down to the color of her scarlet hair ribbons. Catherine, for whom the word overkill might have been invented, has a whole dress made in this color in which she makes her Act I entrance. The tone of bitter mockery behind clenched teeth. hiding behind a smile with which the doctor greets her may be lost on Catherine — but not on the audience.
Aunt Lavinia (Julia Duffy), a petite blonde with a carrying voice, is spending the winter
at Dr. Sloper's request. He's at his wit's end with Catherine who, when company comes either clings to his arm or makes excuses for trips to the pantry. "Four times!" sighs
Into this wintry discontent comes Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) with his cousin Arthur (Chris Reinacher) and the distressingly beautiful Marion (Anneliese van der Pol), the doctor's neice. Without a brain in her head, she's so obviously the lovely daughter the doctor wanted and he fatuously shows it. More disturbing are the obvious compliments Morris keeps lobbing at Catherine. Only his good looks keep them from being obnoxious. They make the good doctor shudder, however, and later, when Morris has already won
an acceptance to his proposal from the starry-eyed Catherine, he calls the young man
an idler and no good. He wants to take his daughter away to Europe for six months
and Morris, sure of his hold on the inexperienced girl's emotions, urges her to go.
When she returns, still besotted with Morris, she's determined to run away with him.
He agrees but, to his dismay, learns she has defied her father and forfeited her inheritence. In a devastating midnight scene which lets Tom pull out all the stops, we watch with Catherine for the boy who will never come. But that's not all! Oh, no. Catherine has a chance for revenge and in the last act, she takes it.
Heather Tom plays Heather, the brilliantly written part which shows why she'll never
fulfill any of her father's dreams.
"Wonderful", her adjective of choice, is applied to everything, but she grows and matures after her trip to Paris. "You've found a tongue!" says her wondering father and though
her vocabulary is spare, her eye is sharp. With astute pacing and emphasis, Tom gets
her laughs and also displays with crystal clarity an insight into this character's soul.
As the doctor, Chamberlain is sophisticated and worldly. His still good looks and poise are in strong contrast to his daughter and his accent is excellent. He knows where his laughs are and nails them. Although The Heiress isn't thought of as a comedy, there are plenty
of laughs and good actors know where to find them.
Julia Duffy is splendid as flighty Aunt Penniman, a necessary bright spirit.
Gigi Bermingham turns in a solid performance as her sister Elizabeth Almond.
John Iacovelli's scenic design is simple but effective, in keeping with the period. Leah Piehl's costumes, though anything but simple, almost steal the show.
Not many theaters revive a play they did in 1950 and fewer still with this level of
success. Congratulations to Artistic Director Sheldon Epps who has steered the
Playhouse shrewdly and kept it from sinking.
© 2012 Laura Hitchcock Curtain Up
Still a Shining Star
Richard Chamberlain is fondly rememberedby baby boomers as James Kildare, the debonair intern with a dreamy smile and a crackerjack bedside manner, in the megahit NBC medical drama Dr. Kildare (1961-66). That series proved an auspicious beginning for Chamberlain’s acclaimed career in films, recordings, television and theater, which has spanned more than five decades, and is still going strong. The actor has earned three Golden Globes and several Emmy nominations. Chamberlain makes his Pasadena Playhouse debut in the choice role of domineering patriarch Dr. Austin Sloper in a revival of the classic drama The Heiress, opening April 29.
At what age were you drawn to performing?
At 8 years old, in the third grade in a student play, as the Pied Paper of Hamelin, I caught the bug. When I was a kid, I didn’t like real life that much, and living in a fantasy life seemed to be ideal.
How did Dr. Kildare change your life, and what was most rewarding
about doing it?
It was astonishing, just amazing good fortune. All I wanted in life was to be a working actor, and suddenly I was working every day, every week, every month, every year.
And I got to work with wonderful people like Ray Massey, and the show was an enormous hit right away. And it was wonderful training, because the discipline necessary to do that sort of part in a series is enormous. The series opened many doors.
You have done musicals on stage (My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music) and screen. One of the interesting sidelights in your career was co-starring opposite Mary Tyler Moore in the notorious Broadway-bound musical adaptation of the Blake Edwards film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which closed on the road, even following emergency book revisions by Edward Albee. Plus you were a singing idol for teenagers, scoring a chart-topping hit with “Three Stars Will Shine Tonight,” the theme song from Dr. Kildare.
Yes, I started taking singing lessons right after I got out of the army, after college.
You became known in the 1970s as a major star of TV miniseries, when that boom started. What was unique about working in that genre?
Miniseries were a kind of golden age. First of all, the source material was sensational, such as Shogun and The Thorn Birds. These were wonderful novels, wonderful stories,
and the networks had a lot of money to spend on lavish productions. There was a lot
of excitement about them because they were a big deal at the time.
You were also a founding member in the late 1950s of L.A.’s 99-seat theater group, Company of Angels, which is still operating. Did you work with other small companies here?
No. We were mostly students of Jeff Corey, who was a terrific acting coach. Because none of us were working, we decided to pool our resources and rent a little space and put on plays, and make a couple of pennies.
What is interesting about this role and this play?
The Heiress is terrifically well written and the characters are extremely complex—especially Doctor Sloper. He has many sides to him that are often contradictory. He’s like a Chinese puzzle that I’m trying to figure out. In doing this play, it helps that I have done Shakespeare and other classics.
Can you share some thoughts about coming out of the closet in 2003 in
your published memoir?
That was an extraordinary experience. Being gay when I grew up in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s was simply not an option. So you had to pretend to be something else. And it wasn’t until late in life when I realized that being so afraid of it was just stupid—a lot of bull. Because being gay is actually a rather uninteresting fact about someone—just a piece
of information. So it was an enormously freeing experience to realize that there was
no negative side to it.
Is it much easier now for actors to come out than it used to be?
Yes and no. I would not suggest that a young romantic leading man type fellow comes out. It complicates the situation. Because American culture moves glacially. Do you think it’s a career decision more than a political decision? I would say it’s both. It’s a matter
of finding the right balance.
© 2012 Les Spindle Frontiers LA.com
Anyone over 40 remembers that Richard Chamberlain was among America’s most
popular midcentury TV leading men, first in the dramatic series “Dr. Kildare,” then in miniseries such as “Shogun” and “The Thorn Birds.” Now 78, Chamberlain demonstrates his enduring powers of magnetism and gravitas in a production of “The Heiress”
at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Chamberlain plays Dr. Austin Sloper, a successful Manhattan physician who resides in the city’s most enviable neighborhood, Washington Square, in 1850. Sloper and his daughter, Catherine, have a strained relationship. A stern and inflexible man, he also harbors keen disappointments and unrealistic expectations about his plain, shy daughter, who is the opposite of her late, vivacious mother. Sloper reveals early in the play that his feelings
for Catherine are complicated by the tragic circumstances of her birth: His beloved wife died in labor, and Catherine is his only child. When a young man named Morris Townsend takes a shine to Catherine, the doctor immediately suspects his purpose. Catherine has inherited a sizable trust from her mother, and that amount will be tripled when Sloper dies and leaves his estate to her. The doctor has good reason to believe that Townsend
is a dishonest fortune hunter, and he refuses to bless the romance.
Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s finely calibrated 1947 script, based on Henry James’ 1881 novel “Washington Square,” keeps us in doubt about everyone’s motives. Is Townsend sincere in his professed love for Catherine? Is the doctor really looking after his daughter’s best interests? Or do his complicated feelings include a wish to keep her unhappy? Will he really disinherit her if she marries Townsend, as she threatens to do?
“The Heiress” can easily devolve into a potboiler costume drama in the wrong hands,
but director Dámaso Rodriguez shows admirable restraint with pacing and blocking, and the actors keep their emotional dynamics largely within the confines of 19th-century New York society. Chamberlain wrestled with a few bobbled lines on opening night, but that didn’t undermine the actor’s intensity or studied subtlety. His Austin is a troubled soul who covers his sorrow and disappointment in a martinet’s starchy persona. It’s a finely detailed and mesmerizing performance, with a convincing mix of cerebral and visceral elements imbuing line delivery and body language.
Daytime TV star Heather Tom counterbalances Chamberlain effectively as Catherine. Watching this sweet-natured, fragile character gradually assume the calculating cold-heartedness of her father is central to the success of the script, and Tom spins out that crucial arc incrementally and brilliantly. As Townsend, Steve Coombs needs more ambiguity, overplaying his hand in the first act by making his character’s confidence and smooth manners seem too unctuous and shallow.
John Iacovelli’s set, the Draper drawing room, is spectacular in its realism, right down
to the flickering gas lamps. The well-appointed production is marred only by the music: Doug Newell’s sound design is unsophisticated and anachronistic. Harpsichords were
scrap lumber by 1850.
© 2012 Paul Hodgins Backstage
The Heiress at the Pasadena Playhouse
The Pasadena Playhouse should inherit a healthy box office with their current talented-cast revival of the surprisingly delightful “The Heiress.” Having not experienced past incarnations of writers Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s classic on film or stage, I was more than pleasantly surprised that this period drama, suggested by the Henry James novel “Washington Square,” was quite often interrupted by the audience’s laughter.
Especially entertaining were the many biting, dead-on barbs of stage and screen legend Richard Chamberlain as the well-respected family physician Dr. Austin Sloper. Chamberlain successfully mines the intended, yet unexpected laughs each time a pearl
of wisdom rolls ever-so-trippingly out of his mouth. Chamberlain dominates the stage with his authoritative voice and his commanding presence. His put-downs also seemed to be 21st-century digs in this 1850s period drama. For example, when Catherine models a wine-red-colored gown (her mother’s favorite color) for her father’s approval, Chamberlain’s rapier cuts with “Yes, but your mother dominated the color.”
Bull’s-eye right between her eyes!
Chamberlain’s long-time widowed Dr. Sloper heads a household at 16 Washington Square consisting of his sister Lavinia (Julia Duffy of “Newhart” fame), also widowed by her deceased pastor husband; shy, socially-inept daughter Catherine (soap opera star Heather Tom); and maid Maria (Elizabeth Tobias).
After the play’s introductory scenes between the doctor, his daughter and her aunt,
the action (and the play) gets stimulated when guests arrive for a small dinner party.
The doctor’s other sister Elizabeth (Gigi Bermingham) appears with her daughter Marian (Anneliese Van Der Pol), Marian’s fiancée Arthur (Chris Reinacher) and Arthur’s distant cousin, the uninvited Morris (Steve Coombs).
Obvious to all involved (both onstage and in the audience), Morris is attempting to woo Catherine. Coombs charms and seduces as the possibly conniving Morris. This smooth and worldly Morris—Is he or isn’t he after Catherine just for her inheritance? Is Dr. Sloper just being an overprotective father, or does he really see through Morris’ charade of love for his daughter? Is Aunt Lavinia truly concerned about her niece’s lack of social wiles and companionship, or is she just scheming to prolong her gratis room and board at
16 Washington Square?
As both Chamberlain and Duffy play their respective characters, neither are villains or meddlers, as they could have been interpreted. Both give their characters much heart and soul to be caring and sympathetic in their dealings with the poor, introverted Catherine.
Tom convincingly plays the naiveté and hurt of Catherine to almost annoying disbelief. One wants to shake her into reality and out of her tunnel vision of love. But Tom handles her changes of character from low, low self-esteem to attempts of standing up for herself quite believably.
Effective costuming by Leah Piehl and the proper posturing of the cast greatly suggest the 1850s. The stunning front parlor set of 16 Washington Square vividly created by set designer John Iacovelli, combined with Brian Gale’s dramatic side/back lighting of the large parlor windows which reveal the front courtyard at various times of day and night, make for a picture-perfect postcard of an 1850s luxury interior.
Dámaso Roderiguez directs this close-to-three-hour production with a firm hand and steady, even pacing — with never a dull moment to be had.
Quick prop changes between scenes were efficiently and cleverly performed by the maid and an unbilled butler, with Tobias’ maid providing in her scenes just the perfect amount of comic relief.
© Gil Kaan, Culture Spot LA
In an interview to Soaps.com, Heather Tom who plays
Dr. Sloper's daughter Catherine had this
to say about working with Richard Chamberlain:
"Soaps.com: You are sharing the stage with Richard Chamberlain and Julia Duffy.
What’s it been like working with them?
Heather: It's been wonderful, the entire cast is great.
It's been a fairly easy rehearsal process; everyone just
came in ready to hit the ground running and work hard.
They're fantastic. I've been so lucky to work with so
many wonderful older male icon actors, and Richard Chamberlain
is one of them. It's wonderful to sit back and learn from him,
and Julia is funny, and really smart; just a cool lady. "
© 2012 Soaps.com
Read the full interview here
Richard Chamberlain channels his father for 'The Heiress'
© Robert Gauthier Los Angeles Times
The veteran actor says the role of Dr. Austin Sloper in the Pasadena Playhouse
production hits close to home.
Richard Chamberlain is putting a lot of his father, Charles, into his role as
Dr. Austin Sloper in the Pasadena Playhouse production of "The Heiress," Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 adaptation of Henry James' "Washington Square." The drama begins previews next week and opens April 29.
Set in 1850s New York, "The Heiress" revolves around the wealthy physician's domineering relationship with his plain-Jane daughter, Catherine, and his disapproval
of her handsome suitor, whom he believes is a fortune hunter. Basil Rathbone was nominated for a Tony in 1948 for his performance as Sloper in the Broadway production; Ralph Richardson earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal in the 1949 film
classic directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland in her
Academy Award-winning performance.
"I don't think he is a villain," said Chamberlain of Sloper. "I think he becomes obsessed with this competition with this young man. And he is such a controlling man. I can
think of my father. He was extremely dominating in the household. Bullies are easy
to scare if you really stand up to them. At the end of the play, she stands up to him
and he just wilts."
The actor, a youthful, almost boyish 78, did try to stand up to his father, who had been
a heavy drinker until Chamberlain was 9, then became a tireless worker for
"But he just mowed me down," he said over his lunch break from rehearsals. "He was
a very powerful man. But in my father's case and, I think, in Dr. Sloper's case, there is something damaged underneath that needs that protection of winning and dominating
and having the big chair. There is something very missing in people like that."
Chamberlain said that he finds playing his father to be cathartic. "There is one scene in the play where he is totally, absolutely cruel to her when they return from Europe and he's sick," said Chamberlain. "It is the most awful scene, but it's actually fun to play.
Fun may be the wrong word — really interesting to play — to actually feel the depth
of sheer cruelty to the most innocent of persons."
The revival's director, Damasco Rodriguez, said that Chamberlain is a total gentleman.
"It is surprising to find out he is 78," he said. "He is only that age because the facts
say so. He is really sharp and fit.
"There is a tendency in the rehearsal room to say, 'Wow,
we are in the room with Richard Chamberlain.' But once we are working, he is just one
of the company. Dr. Sloper is this dominate presence over his daughter and also a figure in the community, so Richard just brings this charisma we know him for, but the authority of experience and the ability to command a room just being in it."
Though Chamberlain is best known as the noble "Dr. Kildare" in the 1960s series that made him famous and for his leading roles in the 1980 miniseries "Shogun" and 1983's "The Thorn Birds," he is no stranger to theater. In fact, in 1959 he became one
of the founders of the Company of Angels theater troupe, which is still in existence
in downtown L.A.
"A bunch of actors were working with [actor and acting coach] Jeff Corey," he recalled. "None of us could get work and we decided to form our own theater company. Somehow we got funds together and rented a little odd space and started putting on plays. We did 'The Caine Mutiny' and 'La Ronde,' and it was deliriously wonderful to do that."
He also starred with Mary Tyler Moore in one of the legendary Broadway flops of all
time — the 1966 musical version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which closed after four previews on Broadway.
"It was first-class, very expensive and nothing worked," he said. Oddly enough,
Edward Albee ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") was brought in to rewrite the book.
"We got a new director.... I think I began to get shoved a little bit aside. It became
a very dark musical 'Virginia Woolf,' and the audience hated it. [Producer] David Merrick closed the show with an enormous pre-sale. He returned all the money. It just broke
my heart when it closed.
© 2012 Susan King, Los Angeles Times
The doctor is in: Richard Chamberlain stars at the Playhouse
At 78, Richard Chamberlain is still handsome with blue eyes that sparkle when he laughs, which is often. His rich voice gives him instant command of the room, yet his charming, friendly manner sets people at ease. The man many swooned for in the early 1960s TV show “Dr. Kildare,” Chamberlin has come full circle in a way, playing Dr. Austin Sloper in “The Heiress,” opening at the Pasadena Playhouse on Tuesday, April 24.
The drama, based on Henry James’ 1881 novel “Washington Square,” is the tale of a young woman and her ailing physician father, who does not approve of her suitor because he thinks the man is after his daughter’s inheritance. “The Heiress” is directed by Damaso Rodriguez and also stars Heather Tom and Julia Duffy.
“On a certain level it’s about the difficulties and dangers of expectations,”
He explains that Dr. Sloper’s wife died after giving birth to their daughter,
and he envisioned the young girl, Catherine, to step into her stead. But Catherine
is nothing like the woman Sloper adored — she is plain and socially inept, so
he controls and resents her.
Chamberlain finds his character fascinating because while he is successful and intelligent, and a caring and capable doctor, running a children’s clinic and assisting in childbirth,
his compassion stops with his daughter.
“I’ve noticed in my family that, especially in the men, there is a kind of mean streak,”
he said. “I inherited that to a certain extent. Especially in my early days when I had very little self-confidence, despite the fact that I was rather successful. I was capable of withholding certain behaviors, which could be described as covertly mean. It’s interesting for me to experience what it would have been like if I had really let my meanness go.” Chamberlain said that “The Heiress” could encourage people to “examine any ways that you might be deforming your own life, suppressing your own heart, closing off your own feelings and (where you lack) compassion.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Chamberlain enjoyed escaping into the fantasy world of the movies. His first acting role was playing the Pied Piper in a show in third grade. He later attended Pomona College as an art major.
“I always wanted to be an actor, but I was extremely shy and lacking in self-confidence,” he said. “Being a totally impractical person, I thought, well, if I can’t be an actor I’ll do something practical like being an artist.”. Chamberlain ended up devoting most of his time to the college’s theater department. After receiving an overwhelming response from the audience during a production of “Arms and the Man” in his senior year, he finally he realized he could pursue his dream. Chamberlain co-founded the Los Angeles theater group Company of Angels and has appeared in numerous stage productions, TV shows and films, including “Shogun,” “The Thorn Birds,” “Chuck” and “Desperate Housewives.”
He has also narrated several documentary films, such as “Endangered Hawai’i,” which explores the extinction of 71 bird species native to Hawaii. Chamberlain is also an accomplished painter of abstracts, landscapes, portraits and any piece that offers
a challenge. You can see his work at www.richard-chamberlain.com. Chamberlain loves
to travel and go to movies and dinner with friends.
“Work was the most important thing for most of my life, but I suddenly discovered people and I value my friends beyond anything else now,” Chamberlain said.
As for “The Heiress,” Chamberlain said the cast and crew get along very well and are looking forward to the opening curtain. “It’s a wonderfully constructed play,” he said.
“It’s a bit melodramatic, but very human.”
© 2012 Michelle J. Mills
All stage photos Jim Cox