Part of the fun of a really good drama is sensing a big crowd holding its breath. Arena Stage audiences are leaning in and listening eagerly to the meaty suspense and betrayals in “The Heiress,” the Henry James tale that depicts a woman of means trying to find her voice. As the woman’s father jousts with a young man interested in marrying her, viewers gasp together at even the most nuanced twists. The reaction is like audible Twitter: He said What??!!
“The Heiress” is an acute social diagnosis that acts just a little like a potboiler as James, in his 1880 novel “Washington Square” (the basis of the play, and of the 1949 movie) dissected class and gender tensions in mid-19th century Manhattan. Those tensions may resonate more clearly now than they have for decades. Without a whisper of underlining or updating, the dynamics that define the constrained young woman’s dilemma look terribly familiar.
The plot is direct: Is the awkward heiress Catherine Sloper genuinely loved by the elegant but poor suitor Morris Townsend? Dr. Sloper, Catherine’s father, thinks Morris is only angling for her money. The script by Ruth and Augustus Goetz follows James’s lead and makes it hard to be sure.
The characters are so deep, and the conflict is so actable, that the part of Catherine earned Olivia de Havilland a 1950 Oscar and Cherry Jones a 1995 Tony Award. Director Seema Sueko has cast her production splendidly, with Laura C. Harris holding the spotlight at Arena’s in-the-round Fichandler stage as a whip-smart but paralyzingly anxious Catherine.
“A mediocre and defenseless creature without a shred of poise,” Dr. Sloper says confidentially about Catherine to his sister Lavinia. Harris, seen recently at Studio Theatre playing a cocky, sharklike lobbyist in the inside-the-Beltway drama “Kings,” pivots entirely as she embodies Catherine. The cowers and flinches are painful to watch, all the more so because as Harris listens and reacts, you see how nimble Catherine’s mind is, and how bruised she is.
What seizes your attention is how rigorously Sueko and her subtle cast avoid overripe melodrama, starting with the encounters between father and daughter. James Whalen offers a velvety version of Dr. Sloper; he’s far less rigid than Ralph Richardson was in the Hollywood classic. Whalen draws out how protective Dr. Sloper thinks he’s being as he vets Townsend, yet at the same time, bitterness leaks in around the edges whenever Dr. Sloper laments the wife who died giving birth to Catherine.
The story’s moral intrigue is particularly sharp in an exchange between Whalen’s Sloper and Lise Bruneau as Mrs. Montgomery, Morris’s sister. Sloper wants details about Morris, and the sister’s honest, surprising replies give Whalen and Bruneau an opportunity for some first-rate intellectual fencing.
The same goes for Jonathan David Martin’s impetuous self-defense as Morris, who’s a little too quick to guess what Dr. Sloper’s objections will be. Martin positions Morris precisely: You see how Morris’s calm, steady focus on Catherine wins her, and how the young man’s prickly haste puts the doctor off. As the figures maneuver among the impeccable furnishings of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s set — and let’s note how exacting Ivania Stack’s 1850-era costumes are, from the misguided opulence of Catherine’s scarlet dress to the quality of a pair of men’s gloves — all of the characters’ attractions and frictions make sense. The relationships crackle.
Nancy Robinette brings invaluable humor and feeling to Catherine’s meddling Aunt Lavinia, a would-be matchmaker between her niece and Morris, and Harris is perpetually fascinating as Catherine rolls, often roughly, with the changes. The show downshifts to a slower gear after intermission, but Sueko properly declines to rush; the pace is always right. The play’s reckonings are delicious and timely in the questions about a perverse sort of glass ceiling for Catherine, and the production’s faith in the actors’ craft pays off.
The Heiress, by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz. Directed by Seema Sueko. Lights, Sherrice Mojgani; sound design and original mix, Emma M. Wilk. With Lorene Chesley, Janet Hayatshahi, Kimberly Schraf and Nathan Whitmer. Through March 10 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. $41-$95, subject to change. 202-554-9066 or arenastage.org