After about 10 minutes, Little Theatre of Alexandria's production of "The Heiress" seems reminiscent of "women's movies," from, say, 1942. This is a period soap opera, a costume-piece drama set in 1850s New York about an ugly duckling heiress who turns into a glowing ingenue under the attention of a young man who may be a fortune seeker.
Imagine the surprise when a bit of research showed that it was a film, made in 1949 at Paramount Pictures. William Wyler directed Olivia de Havilland to an Oscar in the starring role. The celluloid potboiler was based on Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 play, an adaptation of Henry James's novel "Washington Square" and the very play currently onstage in Alexandria.
Now that cable television's AMC channel is cutting up its old movies into little chunks wedged between commercials, seeing the play may be the best way to experience this overwrought story. Directed by Carla Scopeletis, "The Heiress" is a finely tuned affair with several effective performances that hold one's attention.
Karen Jadlos Shotts, last seen as a mermaid in American Century Theater's "Laughter at Ten O'Clock: Memories of the Carol Burnett Show," has traded her fins for a hoop skirt as Catherine, the awkward and socially inadequate daughter of prominent Dr. Austin Sloper, played by area newcomer Matthew Randall.
Sloper is a martinet, a cold and forbidding sort who strictly controls his daughter's life while wallowing in grief over his late wife, who died giving birth.
Sloper is resentful that his ungainly daughter lives while his graceful and beautiful wife is gone. His disdain has turned Catherine into a tentative and timid girl who cannot look anyone in the eye and hangs her head like a whipped dog.
The actors are marvelous, breathing life into these ridiculous figures and bestowing them with richer dimensions than are found in the fevered script.
Shotts finesses a scene that is pivotal but could easily provoke derisive laughter in less capable hands as Catherine suddenly finds herself the object of attention from a slightly rakish young man. Barely able to look at him, she nevertheless responds to an unexpected kiss and instantly transforms into a lively little coquette, her drab world abruptly bursting into Technicolor.
Shotts manages another startling transformation before the final curtain. It is chillingly effective, but saying more would give away the plot.
Randall gives the manipulative and domineering Sloper just enough humanity. He's unattractive and stiff but not the caricature as written.
Kathy Fannon takes on the murky role of Catherine's Aunt Lavinia. The Goetzes couldn't decide whether she's a grasping conniver or just clueless, so Fannon successfully plays her somewhere in the middle. Other characters are clearer, and the actors generally do a fine job under Scopeletis's languidly paced direction.
However, Catherine's suitor, Morris Townsend, is clumsily played by Don Chudzik, who races through his lines in an unnaturally pitched voice that sounds as if it is strangling with tension.
The overall effect is candy for eye and ear. Robert Gray's remarkably appointed set and Grant Kevin Lane's costumes are sumptuous and richly detailed. The Sloper home showcases a neoclassical drawing room of hunter green and rich cream colors. Bill Rinehuls's sound design adds a luxuriously romantic atmosphere, from the hansom cabs arriving outside on cobblestones to the melodramatic, moody music.
"The Heiress" is turgid soap opera, and no amount of commentary on the evolving role of women can overcome that. But it needn't be relevant to be fun. Accept it for what it is, enjoy the fine performances and you'll be okay.
"The Heiress" runs through Nov. 23 at Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets or information, call 703-683-0496.