Heiress Apparent

10.9.2012

By Mark Peikert

The most inescapable actress of 2011 is about to embark on another career milestone. Jessica Chastain on portraying one of Broadway's first feminists.

Photo: Polly Borland/Contour

She conquered the Cineplex with seven films last year, and now Jessica Chastain’s taking a break from Hollywood and heading to the Great White Way. This season, she takes on the titular role in a revival of The Heiress, a story that earned Olivia de Havilland an Oscar for its 1949 film adaptation and made a bona fide, Tony-winning star out of Cherry Jones with its previous 1995 Broadway revival. As Chastain herself puts it, “You can tell so much about the quality of a role by the legacy of the actresses that have played it.”

Based on Henry James’s novella Washington Square, The Heiress details the pain of heroine Catherine Sloper as she’s torn between her domineering father and the young man who claims to adore her but may be a fortune hunter. Catherine’s dilemma may sound like the type of melodrama that fell out of fashion, but the struggle for personal salvation at the play’s center remains visceral and timely.

“When I read the script, I loved this character immediately,” says Chastain. “There’s something very courageous and, at the same time, very vulnerable about her.” She speculates that Catherine may be the first feminist. “She really does decide that she doesn’t need to be a prop to someone—that it’s all right to be on her own.”

In many ways, Catherine’s quest to redefine herself is akin to that of a gay adolescent. She is, after all, coping with a disapproving parent and trying to change the course of her future. The similarities aren’t lost on the show’s director, Moisés Kaufman, who is most celebrated for writing and directing The Laramie Project. “Catherine has a decision to make,” Kaufman says. “Should she continue to think of herself as her father thinks of her…or does she come up with a new way to think of herself and survive? I do think gay men have a particular insight into that process.”

The Heiress opens November 1 at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City.

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