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March 13, 2013

‘Heiress’ not so apparent

Audiences should be prepared for unexpected twists in period drama ‘The Heiress’

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

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Ron Bernas, of Grosse Pointe Woods, plays a mysterious suitor and Rachel Settlage, of Grosse Pointe City, plays the shy title character who attracts his attention in Grosse Pointe Theatre’s production of “The Heiress.”

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — “The Heiress” — the latest Grosse Pointe Theatre production — has to do with passion, and director Michele Karl, of St. Clair Shores, knows about that subject, herself.

She was so enthused with the play that Karl has been trying to convince GPT’s selection committee to stage “The Heiress” for the last 25 years.

Based on an 1880 Henry James novel and set in 1850s New York, “The Heiress” is about Catherine Sloper, the introverted only child of a successful and prominent doctor. Catherine finds herself torn between her critical father and an ardent and dashing suitor, Morris Townsend. Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, is convinced that Morris only has eyes for his plain daughter’s inheritance, but Catherine — who has never lived up to the exalted image her father has of her late mother, who died in childbirth — is getting positive attention from a man for the first time in her life, and has to decide whether to follow her head or her heart.

“I think I fell in love with the period and the characters,” said Karl, who finally got the chance to direct “The Heiress” this season, after proposing it every year for the last two and a half decades.

Catherine’s quandary is deepened by the fact that her only power at that time in history came from the fact that she hailed from a wealthy family and stood to inherit her father’s considerable fortune.

Karl said she views this show as “a structurally simple tragic comedy” that focuses on family relationships and a woman’s place in society during that period.

In the 1800s, women “were pampered by society,” she said. “They were considered silly, conventional and totally dependent on men, unless they were wealthy.” It was also a time when people married within their own social class, Karl said.

Audiences will see the Catherine her father sees — quiet and a bit dull — but also the animated, witty portion of her persona that comes to light only under certain circumstances and with certain people.

“It’s quite a compelling subject matter, and one that transcends the period,” said Hildy Corbett, of Ferndale, who plays one of Catherine’s aunts. “We all long for acceptance and respect.”

She said Karl brings an exacting quality necessary to tell the story, as well as “passion” for the script.

“Relationships are the same — it doesn’t matter when (the story is set),” said Emily Thomson, of Garden City, who plays Catherine’s younger and seemingly vapid cousin. “You’re always going to find that parent who’s not the best parent or that child who doesn’t live up to those expectations.”

Ron Bernas, of Grosse Pointe Woods, plays Morris, and he said his character — and the play, itself — can be interpreted in many ways.

“It’s an old-fashioned melodrama, but there’s much more to it — more levels,” he said. “What’s beautiful about the play and what makes it such a good play is that two people sitting next to each other can see the play and come out with two different views of Morris. And it’s supported by the script and the direction. … There are no clear answers.”

Thomson agreed, saying there are “definitely a few red herrings” in “The Heiress.”

Rachel Settlage, of Grosse Pointe City, plays Catherine opposite Ron Otulakowski, of Eastpointe, as Dr. Austin Sloper. The cast also includes Terry Turpin-Amato and Beth Teagan, of Grosse Pointe Woods, John Leo, of Grosse Pointe City, and Elizabeth Perkin-Moen, of Harper Woods. Corbett said every character “adds to the story.”

“It’s very much an ensemble piece,” continued Thomson, who plays Corbett’s daughter. “You pull one person out, and it doesn’t work.”

Visually, the production speaks to its period and the image the characters hope to convey. Karl wanted the furniture to be “heavy and dark,” with “soft, quiet and elegant” colors to express wealth. Set dresser Kathleen Conlon, of St. Clair Shores, reupholstered pieces of furniture and created the fringed draperies on the stage.

“Grosse Pointe (Theatre’s) reputation for beautiful costumes and beautiful set design really shows itself,” Corbett said.

Under the direction of Ruth Ellen Mayhall, of Grosse Pointe Woods, GPT costumers — who’ve created all but two of the ensembles — have outdone themselves this time, say those involved in the production.

“What you’re going to see on this stage is magnificent,” said Karl of the elaborate gowns, bonnets and other costume pieces. “They’re absolutely glorious.”

The War Memorial is located at 32 Lake Shore. Performances of “The Heiress” are at 8 p.m. March 14-16, 2 p.m. March 17 and 8 p.m. March 21-23. Tickets are $18. For tickets or more information, call (313) 881-4004 or visit www.gpt.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1047.