Her day

With the release of Jane Campion's confused Portrait of a Lady, all eyes are on the gay American novelist Henry James. In the world of popular cinema, which pits great literary artists against one another as if they were Hollywood players, James is called the next Jane Austen. Like Britain's astringent commentator on manners and morals, who has in the past two years hogged the art-house spotlight, James has big-budget projects based on his work either in production or in current/imminent release--look for the late 1997 Washington Square, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Maggie Smith, to pick up the baton dropped by Campion's Portrait of a Lady.

Henry James recently made a comeback in America's theater mecca, too--the 1995 Broadway revival of The Heiress, based on Washington Square, won Tony Awards for its luminous star, lesbian actress Cherry Jones, as well as for Best Revival.

Campion's much-publicized Portrait of a Lady provides a delicious counterpoint to The Heiress, which was adapted faithfully, if melodramatically, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Some people say Henry James is unfilmable because his lengthy paragraphs about motive and state of mind contradict the demands of a visual medium. However, he is not, as the Goetzes proved, unstageable--long paragraphs are easily translated into long monologues, which provide a delicious opportunity for a resourceful actor to take flight in a medium that truly appreciates psychological insight.

In any case, North Texas audiences can compare for themselves two adaptations in two different interpretations of the same author. Jane Campion has reconfigured Portrait of a Lady as a pre-feminist foray into repressed female passion, which would be dandy if she'd chosen a more appropriate period piece from which to improvise--the film is a gaudy mess of vague characterizations and absent motives.

On the other hand, Ruth and Augustus Goetz's The Heiress, currently being staged at Theatre Arlington, proves that the playwrights, who penned this version in the mid-1940s, have a keen understanding of Henry James' themes. As an American who spent most of his adult life in Europe, James was fascinated with the American search for identity in a culture that didn't have England's historical pedigree. As a gay man, he was acutely aware that this struggle could be depicted most sympathetically in women, who were, in that era, the sexual outsiders most affected by marriage and property laws. The Heiress juggles class and gender in a carnival act that ends with that most American of climaxes--the underdog prevails, if only Pyrrhically. In Washington Square, Henry James the moralist is far more interested in depicting the damage on both sides than satisfying an audience's natural thirst for catharsis through revenge. He reaches more or less the same conclusion as the Goetzes, but portrays its consequences in more egalitarian terms.

Theatre Arlington has assembled a sterling troupe of actors who most capably render The Heiress in all its subtle shades of blue. Please pick up a copy of Washington Square to rediscover how James trampled gender barriers to portray women and men as equal, if tragic, co-conspirators in their intertwined fate. But also prep for Agnieszka Holland's upcoming movie version by sampling Theatre Arlington's sober, intelligent, occasionally heartbreaking tale of one plain, shy woman's brave bid for love from the two most important men in her life. When she discovers neither will respond, she becomes hardened, crafty, and heartless.

The action takes place over two years in one sumptuously decorated drawing room in 1850s New York City. Painfully self-conscious Catherine (Lauren Halyard) is the only daughter of Dr. Sloper (Martin Smith), a fearsomely respected family practitioner who conducts his household with the same clinical precision he offers his patients.

Catherine is not terribly attractive, not especially talented, and has unfortunately carried a childhood fear of her father into adult relationships with men--she will stare at the floor upon interacting with a man in any capacity. She also bears the burden of knowing that her mother--a woman whom Dr. Sloper has idolized "beyond human recognition," to quote the text--died while giving birth to her.

Still, Catherine's impending wealth ($10,000 a year from her mother's estate, $30,000 once her father dies) makes her rather conspicuous in the backbiting social circles in which she travels. The constant, if unwanted, influence of an excitable aunt named Lavinia (Shirley Orr) does nothing to help Catherine negotiate a treaty with her own personal demons.

Her modest torment is worsened by a charming young bachelor named Morris Townsend (Rodney Honeycutt) who enters her cloistered world by family acquaintance. Unlike any man she has ever met, Mr. Townsend displays persistent attention to her tiniest virtues; it's a measure of the sheer humanity of Henry James and his adapters that they grant Catherine this tiny victory. She is not a hopeless dog pursued by a cruel master, like the crudely compelling but facile way Olivia deHavilland and Montgomery Clift played these people in the 1949 film version of The Heiress. She is simply a woman woefully unprepared to represent her class in society.

And who, exactly, is Morris? Dr. Sloper believes him to be a money-hungry scoundrel; Catherine a belated believer in her true self; Aunt Lavinia a romance novel hero who, through his courtship of Catherine, vicariously fulfills her own image of the ideal lover.

Theatre Arlington's production of The Heiress honors these subtleties by casting two actors who don't exploit the worst instincts of the script. Lauren Halyard as Catherine is far from homely, but her finely detailed manner suggests a woman who believes she is; Rodney Honeycutt as Morris isn't drop-dead handsome, but damned if he can't talk as though he believed he was and convince us as smoothly as he convinces Catherine.

Martin Smith as the belittling Dr. Sloper is more of a villain than Morris, but Smith's performance stirs in enough simple impatience to suggest he doesn't despise his daughter, although she will come to believe it and react accordingly.

For me, the pivotal character in this story--whether created by James' pen, Miriam Hopkins in the 1949 movie version, or Maggie Smith in the soon-to-be-released Washington Square--is Aunt Lavinia, the childless widow who emotionally exploits her niece so she may get close to an attractive man half her age. Shirley Orr scores a bull's-eye with her turn as this professional meddler who's never honest with anyone--let alone herself--about the true nature of her free-floating romanticism. Orr is a delight, but it would be great to see her indulge the carnal side of her interest in Morris a tiny bit more. As much as anyone else, she symbolizes the hopeful pathos inside this timeless tale--a character whose encounters with reality have driven her straight into the arms of illusion.

The Heiress runs through February 15. For more information call 817-275-7661.

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Jimmy Fowler