In Henry James' short novel Washington Square, set in 1850 New York, when a homely, awkward and guileless young heiress named Catherine Sloper comes to believe, like her sophisticated father, that her own heartfelt belief in the love declared to her by opportunistic suitor Morris Townsend is folly, the scars leave calluses. A dramatization of that hardening of the heart, in a riveting performance by Heather Tom, is on full display at the Pasadena Playhouse in the latest revival of Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 stage adaptation of the novel, called The Heiress, which opened Sunday.
There is much the same style of romantic love being declared over at Hollywood's Fountain Theatre by a hearing-impaired poet named Cyrano (Troy Kotsur) to a rock band groupie named Roxie (Erinn Anova). Because deaf Cyrano can't speak with his vocal cords, he uses his brother as a stand-in to declare his love: aging rocker Chris (Paul Raci), whose career is crashing. Though Chris can speak, he's no poet, yet the love of words and old-style romantic poetry is Roxie's soft spot. It's for this reason that the brothers Cyrano and Chris jointly woo Roxie. Cyrano composes flowery love letters for Chris to send via email and text message, in Stephen Sachs' new play, Cyrano, inspired by Edmond Rostand's 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac. The production is jointly produced by Deaf West Theatre and the Fountain Theatre, and also opened over the weekend.
Cyrano and Catherine share a couple of romantic convictions: that words are the earnest expressions of feelings, rather than decoys and diversions that mask hidden motives. This belief has them both eventually clutching the air in anguish when they're confronted by the realities of the world beyond their fantasies.
The second conviction they share is that they are each unlovable and therefore consigned to loneliness, because of deficiencies they feel they each possess: Catherine comes to believe her father's judgment that she is without wit or grace, and is therefore vulnerable to the ruses of suitors who protest their love but are really after the inheritance left for her by her late mother. Whereas Rostand's Cyrano felt encumbered and ostracized by his oversized nose, Sachs' Cyrano has no such facial complexes. He instead believes that his deafness and his inability to speak render him a kind of freak to whom the hearing world condescends, so that much of his life, along with the play's action, becomes dedicated to his defying the larger world with swagger.
Pasadena Playhouse's The Heiress, staged with regal formality by Dámaso Rodriguez, shares the set and lighting designers employed for the just-closed production of Waiting for Godot at the Taper: John Iacovelli's palatial set brings a symmetrical faux-Greco grandeur to the front parlor of the home owned by Catherine's father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Richard Chamberlain), while Brian Gail's lighting design subtly conveys the slyly shifting points of view as Morris Townsend (Steve Coombs) comes a-wooing with assertive charm. The impoverished Morris storms Dr. Sloper's formidable barricade via an invite from his cousin, Arthur (Chris Reinacher), already engaged to the doctor's niece, Marian (Anneliese van der Pol). Talk of their nuptials sets Catherine's social clumsiness and spinsterhood in stark relief.
Catherine believes Morris' every flattering word, while her father will have none of it. (On opening night, Chamberlain found an increasingly powerful, imperious stride after stumbling over a few lines early in Act 1; meanwhile, the ensemble and audience had to endure the incessant buzzing of cellphones throughout the entire performance.)
The divide between father and daughter is not just one of attitude but of language. In the dialogue, Catherine says exactly what's on her mind, in contrast with her father, who tucks his words around a blend of decorum and a steadily growing sarcasm. Only in one climactic scene does he tell his daughter what he actually believes, that nobody will desire her for anything but her inheritance. She takes this as a brutally frank confession that he finds her unworthy of love, including his. These are not-so-creaky concerns, given new statistics showing how an entire generation of baby boomer women are choosing to live their lives alone rather than face the challenges and work of living with a partner, whether in or out of wedlock.
The beauty of Rodriguez's production lies in its ability, for the most part, to sustain Henry James' carefully marbled ambiguity as to the real motives of Morris Townsend, rendered by the playwrights with similar care. This puts Townsend on trial, with mostly circumstantial evidence, that seems to pile up against him as a con man, until he's defended by his sister (Jill Van Velzer), by Dr. Sloper's widowed sister, Lavinia (a fine performance by Julia Duffy), and, later, by himself. There's also a nice turn by Elizabeth Tobias as the housemaid, Maria.
As the suitor Townsend, Coombs has a roguish, translucent charm that plays well for a while. But as his life circumstances transform, he doesn't, which tilts the case against him, as though he is indeed replaying his former routines — as he's accused of doing. This approach subtly sabotages the story's primary virtue — of sustaining the mystery of his heart, thereby allowing our conclusions about him to say more about our own values than his.
Similarly, language lies at the core of Sachs' Cyrano, here directed by Simon Levy. In Deaf West Theatre tradition, it's a bilingual production, with deaf actors signing their roles, simultaneously translated in spoken voice by multicultural actors partnered near them onstage or by words projected onto a series of wide-screen monitors included in Jeff McLaughlin's minimalistic, functional set.
Having Cyrano as a kind of Beat poet who crashes poetry jams starts to feel a bit askew, perhaps because of the animation in the body language and vivid facial expressions of Troy Kotsur's ebullient Cyrano. Imagine an ensemble of hipsters doing children's theater.
It doesn't take long, however, for the childlike energy to take over the ensemble and the story, which is really theme-and-variation on Cinderella. Cyrano finally gets to the ball and meets his princess, Roxie, only to discover that she disassociates him from the words she's been cherishing, words he's been feeding her through his brother's cellphone. She loves his words but she's more beguiled by his brother, Chris (Paul Raci), who can talk, and who Roxie believes can speak the kind of poetry that stirs her.
In Rostand's 1897 version, Christian is a handsome soldier but also a dolt with words, which is why Cyrano has to supply them under cover of darkness. Roxanne is overwhelmed by Christian's good looks, and connected to the words she is duped into believing are his. Rostand's play is about the disconnect between appearances and our souls.
Here, there's a mildly subversive sweetness to Roxie's infatuation with an aging rocker. ("I know I'm no Justin Bieber," the weathered-faced Chris fires back after one of her innuendos about how long he's been a musician.) The underlying issue, however, is her inability to "see" the soul of Cyrano, the soul of somebody with a hearing impediment, even when she learns the words she so loved came from him. The political term is audism, or bigotry against the deaf, which, in one of the play's more incisive insights, is a bigotry Cyrano has internalized, refusing to participate in a local "deaf poetry jam."
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Sachs' treatment of the story teeters into sentimentality, a minor impediment to the production's glorious swirl of words floating around the stage, sometimes connected, sometimes disembodied from the speakers uttering them, sometimes signed, sometimes broadcast via video screens.
So what happens when you try to tell a truth that lies deep in your heart, and it can't be heard? The Heiress concerns the estrangement from a kind of deafness that has little to do with a physical disability, when Catherine's father takes seriously neither her words nor those of her suitor. Sachs' Cyrano brings that idea home.
CYRANO | By Stephen Sachs, inspired by Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac | Presented by Deaf West and Fountain theaters, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. | Through June 10 | (323) 663-1525 | FountainTheatre.com
THE HEIRESS | By Ruth and Augustus Goetz, suggested by the Henry James novel Washington Square | Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. | Through May 20 | (626) 356-PLAY | pasadenaplayhouse.org