From the moment she enters—decked out in widow’s weeds and descending a carpeted stairway—Nancy Robinette commands attention.
That’s not unusual, since this actor—awarded the 2018 Helen Hayes Tribute—has been captivating audiences for roughly 40 years. Now she can be seen again, radiating hope in a ruffled black bonnet, in a revival of The Heiress at Arena Stage.
The play—a Broadway hit from the moment it opened in 1947—was written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who adapted it from a short novel by Henry James called Washington Square. Set in the 1850s, most of the action takes place in the drawing room of a townhouse in a newly-fashionable part of town.
The Heiress, like the book that inspired it, is the story of a wealthy and cruelly condescending man, Dr. Austin Sloper, who constantly berates his daughter, Catherine Sloper—the heiress of the title—for being dowdy, dull and “good for nothing.”
What he means, when he verbally beats her up, is that she is not like her late mother, who—at least in hindsight—was both beautiful and clever. It is Nancy Robinette, as Aunt Lavinia, who observes that Catherine is quite clever when her father is not around to intimidate her.
Of course, Lavinia is a hopeless romantic. Her late husband, the Reverend Mr. Penniman, was the love of her life, so it’s not surprising that she sees marriage as a panacea for all problems.
“I believe in love,” she says, and happily sets the plot spinning by encouraging a courtship on the part of an ardent suitor, one Morris Townsend, who seems to be an acceptable match. In fact, Morris is a gold digger, a scoundrel who has spent his legacy on things like gambling and fancy gloves, and he is clearly more interested in the mansion than in the woman who will inherit it.
Lavinia may seem naïve, but she is no fool. She knows full well that Morris is out for the money, but she’s practical. As she sees it, this match is a perfectly fair exchange. Catherine will get marriage and social status, while Morris will get cash and a house on Washington Square.
But Dr. Sloper doesn’t see it that way. And Morris, faced with the possibility of losing even part of the inheritance, proves to be even more of a loser than we’d thought.
[Click here to read Ramona Harper’s review in DC Metro Theater Arts.]
Although the role of Lavinia does not have the starpower of the heiress herself, it does provide ample opportunity for humor and warmth, sorrow and joy.
In that sense, it reminded me of some of the other roles in which Robinette has literally transformed a minor character—such as the old woman in Everything Is Illuminated and the servant in No Sisters—into a larger, and much more memorable one.
I asked her if, despite having had plenty of leading roles, she sometimes prefers the smaller, less glamorous parts for the surprise they can bring.
“Yes,” she responded by e-mail. “The minor roles can often be as challenging as the large roles. There isn’t much information in the play about a ‘small’ character, so you have to create more of your backstory.”
This is her ninth play at Arena Stage, the most recent one before this having been Ah Wilderness. She is frequently seen at the Shakespeare Theatre and on television and film, and was most recently on Broadway in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
So far she has won five Helen Hayes Awards and 18 nominations, all for best lead or best supporting actor. One of her favorite all-time roles was as Birdie Hubbard in The Little Foxes.
Last spring, she was awarded the Helen Hayes Tribute for most distinguished theater professional. Winners over the years have included Helen Hayes herself, in 1988, and such other legends as Julie Harris, James Earl Jones and Frances Sternhagen. (The latter, not coincidentally, also played the role of Lavinia in The Heiress when it was produced on Broadway in 1995.)
In addition to acting, Robinette teaches advanced scene study at the Shakespeare Theatre. “I’ve come to love teaching,” she wrote, pointing out that it’s a very different skill from acting itself.
A member of Actors Arena—the DC actors’ collaborative that will be celebrating its tenth anniversary next season—she attends workshops, and sees it “as a way for established actors to keep up professional education in the craft.”
Her final words on acting? “I wish I had known earlier in my life that one can actually thrive as an actor. One is often discouraged from following an artistic career in this country,” she concluded. “But I think acting is an important contribution to society and a very fulfilling one.”
In addition to Nancy Robinette, members of the cast include Laura C. Harris as Catherine Sloper, Jonathan David Martin as Morris Townsend, James Whalen as Dr. Austin Sloper, Lise Bruneau as Mrs. Montgomery, Lorene Chesley as Marian Almond, Janet Hayatshahi as Elizabeth Almond, Kimberly Schraf as Maria, and Nathan Whitmer as Arthur Townsend and the coachman. Seema Sueko is the director.
Running Time: Three hours, including a 15-minute intermission.