Vogue (November 2012)
Hollywood favorite Jessica Chastain and Downton Abbey heartthrob Dan Stevens star with David Strathairn and Judith Ivey in Moisés Kaufman’s sparkling new production of The Heiress. By Adam Green. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
When Jessica Chastain was offered the chance to make her Broadway debut in a revival of The Heiress, playing and insecure girl who transforms herself into a powerful woman, she was in the middle of a transformation of her own. She received the script the day of the New York premiere of The Debt, one of a slew of films, among them The Tree of Life and The Help, in which she appeared last year, turning seemingly overnight from a well-regarded stage actress who had played Salome to Al Pacinos King Herod in Los Angeles and Desdemona to Philip Seymor Hoffman’s Iago in New York, into a genuine star. “I asked myself, Do I really want to go back and do a play? And my first thought was no, “Chastain recalls, “But then I got on the plane and I thought, Oh, I’ll just read it. And suddenly, there I was, absolutely sobbing, and by the time we landed I knew that I was going to say yes.”
Chastain’s presence alone would be enough to give The Heiress, which opens this month at the Walter Kerr Theatre, a certain fizz. But throw in a cast that includes the Downton Abbey heartthrob Dan Stevens and the sterling character actors David Strathairn and Judith Ivey, plus sumtuous period sets (Derek McLane) and costumes (Albert Wolsky), and it becomes one of the most glamorous, hotly anticipated cultural events of the season. Adapted for the stage in 1947 by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from Henry’s James’s 1880 novel Washington Square and set in the world of 1850’s New Work society, the play tells the story of Catherine Sloper (Chastain), a plain, painfully shy young woman who lives at home with her domineering father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Strathairn), and her kindly Aunt Penniman (Ivey). When Morris Townsend (Stevens), a dashing rogue with an eye on her inheritance, asks her to marry him, it leads to a showdown that forces Catherine to figure out who she really is.
The play offers a satisfying mixture of old-fashioned storytelling and Jamesian psychological realism. Like the Washington Sqare town house in which it takes place, it is stately and well built, populated by flawed characters whose anxiety about their financial status and place in thw world feels very much of the moment. And, says Ivey, whose character is in a constant lather about her niece’s matrimonial prospects, “we still struggle with that today – Do I remain single? Do I get married? And how will I viewed by society if I choose not to?” Chastain steps into a role played by Wendy Hiller, Olivia the Havilland, Jane Alexander, and Cherry Jones. “The thing I love about Jessica is that she’s a character actress, so she can play many different roles,” says the show’s director, Moisés Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife). “But every role that she plays has truth, intelligence, and a great deal of emotional intelligence. That’s what excites me about her – her ability to create a rich, complex inner life.”
When I turn up into the lobby of the theater where The Heiress is rehearsing, I’m greeted warmly by the five-foot-four actress with her now iconic ivory skin, green eyes, and auburn mane. Dressed in a tailored Viktor & Rolf jacket over a low-cut Isabel Marant dress with her hair pulled back and not much makeup, she has a delicate beauty that’s more girl-next-door than screen siren, which makes it easier to imagine her as the awkward, insecure heroine of the play. “What a great part for a woman, right?” Chastain says. “She’s got a real arc. At first it’s all about her father, and then it’s about Morris and it’s never really about her, until the end. And I was really moved by that, especially when you think about what it took for a woman of that time to define herself on her own terms – to say, “This is my life”.
As an actress in L.A., who often heard that she was “not the right type” or “not pretty enough” for leading roles, Chastain can identify with her character’s dilemma. “As an actor, you walk a tightrope”, she says. “On one side, you’ve got this crippling fear and insecurity, and on the other side there’s this brash, almost arrogant confidence. When I do feel terrified, I charge at it headfirst, and then maybe the confidence kicks in.”
Chastain’s character takes a similar risk when she allows herself to be seduced by Morris. Back from an European trip with a taste for the finner things, he woos Catherine into eloping with him, only to leave her high and dry after he learns that her father will disinherit her. Let seen onstage giving a charismatic, heartfelt performance in the 2009 London revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Dan Stevens is returning to the boards for the first time since becoming famous as Downton Abbey‘s stalwart, decent Matthew Crawley – a far cry from the callow Morris. “It’s trilling to have the opportunity to explore a character with a little more guile and more ambiguity,” Steven says. “Though I don’t think he’s just and out-and-out gold digger. There are genuine moments of connection between him and Catherine. He sees something in her that he’s touched by and excited by and attracted to. He may even love her. But she also possesses security and status within New York society, and that’s something he can’t ignore.”
Chastain and Strathairn return to playing daughter and father, as they did eight years ago in Rodneys’ Wife at Playwrights Horizons. Strathairn, an Oscar nominee for his performance in Good Night, and Good Luck and a theater actor of long and varied pedigree, specializes in character whose passions simmer beneath the surface. That quality should serve him well as Dr. Sloper, a man who continues to blame his daughter for the death of his wife in childbirth, alternately sheltering Catherine and tearing her down. There is no more brutal moment that the scene in which he destroys her belief that Morris cares about her for more than her money: “What else then, Catherine? Your beauty? Your grace? Your charm? Your quick tongue and subtle wit?” Strathairn says. “The thing that’s intriguing about Dr. Sloper is how he contends with his grief, his love for his daughter, his disappointment with her and with his own life, and his desire to protect her, which may or may not be what’s best for her – and what happens when those things collide.”
The confrontation opens Catherine’s eyes to the way of the world and leads her final choice: whether to marry Morris, who has returned declaring his love, or to live out her days as a woman alone. Near the end of the play, when her aunt asks how she could be so cruel, she replies, “I was taught by masters.” Game, set, match.
Chastain may be Hollywood’s next big female star, but theater is what she’s wanted to do ever since seeing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as a girl in Sacramento. A red-carpet regular at Cannes and the Oscars,s he still considers her years at Juilliard the headiest of her life. “I love the shared experience you have with an audience,” she says. “When you cry, they’re crying. When you laugh, they’re laughing.” She pauses. “The other side of that wonderful coin, of course, is that when they’re bored or they hate what you’re doing, you definitely feel it. You want to get close to people and feel a connection to humanity? You got it.”