NEW YORK — The latest revival of “The Heiress” has done the near impossible — it’s drained the light from one of the most luminous actresses working today. In a good way.
Jessica Chastain, that ravishing redhead with the milky skin who shot a dose of bubbly charm to the film “The Help,” turns almost ghoulish in the title role at the Walter Kerr Theatre, which appropriately opened Thursday, the day after Halloween.
Chastain had her work cut out for her playing the “plain” Henry James heroine Catherine Sloper — “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise” — forced to choose between a potentially gold-digging suitor and her aloof father, but the actress has seemingly scrubbed all beauty from her face and voice.
What’s left is a skittish woman with hollow eyes, a simply horrible hostess who, when she speaks, does so in a dull monotone. Even her hair looks mousy. Full credit goes to Chastain, who has buried herself in dullness to play one of theater’s more formidable proto-feminist roles.
The men in her life — David Strathairn plays her father and Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” her suitor — aren’t too shabby either, each turning in performances that are complex and sympathetic. Neither actor, under the superb, subtle direction of Moises Kaufman, emerges as a straw man.
Strathairn’s disappointment is heavy, his barbs painful and laced with sadness — “Help her to be clever,” he begs one of his sisters — while Stevens makes sure his love of the heiress and his love of fine things aren’t mutually exclusive. One quibble: The Britain-born Stevens has adopted an accent that can only be described as “cowboy.”
Chastain negotiates these two men with her heart on her sleeve. She delivers the famous line, “Someone must love me! I have never had anyone!” with powerful anguish. At the play’s very end, the evolution into a stronger Catherine is complete, and she snarls to her father and aunt: “Yes, I can be cruel. I have been taught by masters!”
Another marvelous turn is delivered by Judith Ivey in that tough role of the aunt Lavinia, a romantic woman prone to flightiness. Ivey keeps her light but not stupid. When it becomes clear that Catherine has misread her beloved, Lavinia scolds her. “I know him so well,” she says. And we know she’s right.
All the action takes place in Derek McLane’s handsome parlor set — rich heavy curtains and an elegant, shimmering loveseat — all lit subtly by David Lander. Albert Wolsky’s costumes are lush without being flamboyant, perfectly suited to a home on Washington Square that is expensive but tasteful — and not warm.
Kaufman ratchets up the tension in the final scene beyond the script by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. In this version, Stevens calls and bangs piteously against Catherine’s front door. His anguish falls on deaf ears, of course, the last act of heartbreak in a play filled with them.