"The Heiress" -- Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 adaptation of the Henry James novel, "Washington Square" -- is a play that carries its years poorly. When it was revived by the Kennedy Center in 1976, even the combined talents of Jane Alexander, David Selby, Richard Kiley and Jan Miner were not entirely able to conceal the creaks in the Goetzes' dramaturgy.
Now, with a considerably less accomplished cast, the Barter Theatre has revived the old warhorse as the final offering of its winter residency at George Mason University. This time, the creaking is deafening.
James brought a fine understanding of psychology to his novel about a graceless but wealthy young woman and the condescending father who stands between her and the charming wastrel eyeing her, mainly for her money. In the stage version, the characters' motivations are introduced as subtly as logs being tossed on a bonfire. To get an effective production out of "The Heiress" today, a cast probably has to go against the grain -- that is to say, avoid all that is dramatically obvious in the script and play up those moments that aren't.
Unfortunately, the Barter production has been directed by John Olon with the same show of gravity that a mortician lavishes on his higher-priced caskets. In fact, Rex Partington, as the autocratic father, conducts himself rather like the mortician. Some of the other actors appear to be inhabiting the caskets.
Piper Smith is probably too attractive for the heiress, just as Ross Bickell isn't attractive enough for the wastrel. In any case, he is an extraordinarily wooden suitor, while she makes timidity seem like a kind of mental retardation. Her ultimate transformation, from one who is jilted into one who jilts -- is the biggest letdown of all. Only Patricia Place, as the heiress's giddy aunt, survives this production, probably because her character, drunk on the mere notion of a clandestine romance, lives in a world all her own.
The Barter has a reputation, dating back to the Depression, as one of the better regional theaters, but during its stay at George Mason, it has displayed a modest competency at best. This summer, in Abingdon, Va., its home base, the theater will celebrate its golden anniversary. Productions like "The Heiress" suggest that it may well be time for a shot in the arm. Or elsewhere.
THE HEIRESS. By Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Directed by John Olon; sets, Bennet Averyt ; costumes, Rachel Kurland; lighting, Christopher H. Shaw. With Rex Partington, Patricia Place, Piper Smith, Cleo Holladay, Ross Bickell. At George Mason University through Feb. 28.