It's the plain girls who must develop the interesting personalities -- I mean, look at me. But Catherine Sloper never got that memo. She compounds her plainness with an unbecoming shyness and all-around mediocrity.
In the plus column, however, she has a lot of money ... or rather, she will when her father dies. And that makes her the titular character in The Heiress, the 1947 play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from the Henry James novel Washington Square.
But what's money, even for a plain girl, without love? Catherine's father, Austin, hasn't really ever gotten over his beloved wife dying while giving birth to Catherine, something Catherine is reminded of continually. So when the dashing stranger Morris Townsend shows up to romance Catherine, Austin is sure he's attracted only to the money.
It may not sound like much of a plot, but in the very capable hands of the Goetzes, The Heiress is a cracking good evening of theater. They've provided Townsend with a bit more shading than James did, which gives the evening an enjoyable "Is he or isn't he?" quality.
The Goetzes are working the "well-made play" school of dramaturgy, and The Heiress is a textbook example of how intelligent, talented playwrights can play an audience like a keyboardist plays an organ. The supposed downside to the "well-made play" is that the work can become mechanical. But if this fleet, solidly constructed and highly compelling play is what mechanical looks like, then let's all drink to mechanization.
Little Lake Theatre presents The Heiress in a production directed by Sunny Disney Fitchett. I always enjoy when the Lake directs one of these contemporary classics, because the company is always wise enough to stay out of the way and let the script do the work it was built to do. That's what Fitchett does here. This is a quiet, methodical production with intelligent performances from a solid cast including Art DeConciliis, Lisa Hoffmann, Mary Liz Meyer and Matthew Marceau. (A question in passing: I wonder how often, in its 60-year history, Little Lake has staged this play?)
Just because I get paid to complain, I'd say that maybe some of the play's subtext isn't given quite the force it should be. (There's more happening underneath than on the surface of the script.) But that's a quibble. This is a solid play, handsomely done.
The Heiress continues through Sat., Nov. 1. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive South (off Route 19), Canonsburg. 724-745-6300.