Stage Review: PICT’s ‘The Heiress’ is ‘well made’ in all regards

Captured at WQED studio on 04 03, 2019 by Heather Mull Photography.
By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic

For some it was finding out the Easter Bunny wasn’t real; for others it occurred when Brad and Jen split up. Even more people were shocked when they discovered that, despite their belief, it really wasn’t butter … but my big moment of disillusionment came when I learned that the “Well Made Play” was a genre, not a goal.

And not merely a genre but one looked down on in certain theatrical circles. Playwright Jean Kerr once said she was dismayed to see a play criticized for being too well written because, to her, that was like saying a plane was too well built.

The Heiress continues through April 27. WQED Studios, Oakland.

So what, exactly, is a well-made play? Theatre academicians have a specific definition … but it’s boring and you don’t want to hear it. There’s a more general, if slightly inaccurate, description – and that’s the one I mean. It usually refers to a script of tight construction, a plot built on logic with action progressing methodically toward a satisfying climax.

Why all playwrights don’t write like that is one of the reasons I look so haggard. I like a play that makes sense, where characters make logical decisions and the action is rooted in reality, not occasioned by theatrical fashion.

There’s also a third definition of the well-made play:

The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’ 1947 adaptation of Henry James’ novel Washington Square.

And you have the opportunity to bask in the refracted glory of this well-made play with PICT Classic Theatre’s presentation of a well-made production, directed by Alan Stanford featuring a strong cast taking advantage of all the Goetzes have offered them.

We’re in the 1850’s at the New York City home of Dr. Austin Sloper. He’s a humorless widower who doesn’t really go in for any sort of emotional extravagance. He is also the vexed and vexing father of the unmarried Catherine. Plain, painfully shy and socially inept, Catherine’s sense of self has withered under her father’s exacting ministrations and her future looks to be as bleak as her past.

Into this very dysfunctional home comes Morris Townsend, a dashing young man who instantly falls for Catherine and in less the two weeks they are engaged to be married.

Or maybe not. Dr. Sloper’s opinion of his daughter’s qualities is so low he can’t believe Townsend has genuine affection for Catherine – he is convinced that the man only has eyes for her large inheritance.

Most of all that happens in the first fifteen minutes and the bulk of The Heiress is the story of how these three – along with giddy, credible Aunt Lavinia – plot and plan with and against each other to reach the story’s apotheosis.

One of the qualities I consider part of the well made school is a complete lack of dramatic fat; there’s no filler or showy folderol, just an engine driving us, without detour or delay, to the end.

The forward motion of The Heiress is relentless and director Stanford brings to the production the same uncluttered sense of purpose as the playwrights do. There’s not a moment of self-indulgence or any sign of dramatic waste in the entire production.

Karen Baum brings several welcome moments of humor as the loopy Lavinia and Gayle Pazerski gives her brief role a fiery intelligence. Alec Silberblatt’s Townsend has charm to spare and plays his final scene with an intriguing ambiguity.

Erika Cuenca and James FitzGerald are daughter and father and their two interconnected performances form the beating heart of this production. How they play off of each other with their tangle of hurt and aching need provides shading, weight and a dark beauty to evening. These are two powerful roles and Cuenca and FitzGerald have the smarts and talent to make the absolute most of them.

Why can’t every play I see be as well made (in all respects) as PICT’s The Heiress?