Hollywood Star to Washington Square: Jessica Chastain Returns to the Stage, This Time on Broadway

'The Heiress' is already benefiting from her celebrity

‘The Heiress.’ (©2010 Daniel King/Contour)

“Do you want to know what a nerd I am?” Jessica Chastain cheerfully volunteered in a recent interview. “I signed on to do this a year ago, and I actually bought an apartment two blocks from Washington Square. I’m going to be walking to work every day through Washington Square.”

In a theatrical season promising a Golden Child, a Golden Boy and The Golden Age, Ms. Chastain would have to be (in the pre-sitcom sense of the phrase) the Golden Girl: the girl who has everything—and now a Broadway part. On Nov. 1, she opens at the Walter Kerr in the title role of The Heiress, one Catherine Sloper. It’s a proven prizewinning part (see Olivia de Havilland’s 1949 Oscar and Cherry Jones’s 1995 Tony) based on the protagonist of Henry James’s famous novella Washington Square, and just the ticket for a new girl in town to test her mettle and demonstrate she’s more than just a Hollywood star.

Her Hollywood stardom does, of course, have its advantages: since previews started, The Heiress has been in the money, leading the grosses of the six other straight plays now on Broadway, so some kind of star power must be buoying the box office.

Auburn-haired and fairly fearless, her face freckled with accessible emotion, Ms. Chastain is using her newfound movie fame (and acclaim) to conquer this new frontier, and she’s doing it the hard way—as one of theater’s most vividly remembered heroines.

The most recent memorable performance of Catherine Sloper was Ms. Jones’ Tony Award-winning one 17 years ago. Who could forget her heartbreaking hissy fit in the dark over a no-show suitor? And, of course, Turner Classic Movies keeps Ms. de Havilland endlessly trudging back upstairs with her elopement suitcase (which director William Wyler had secretly packed with books to make her ascent especially difficult and leaden).

But such memories are meant to be effaced—otherwise, there’d be just one Hamlet—and Ms. Chastain’s the game gal to do it. “I want to play all kinds of women in my career,” she said. “I’ve done that in my film career, so I want to continue to do that in theater as well.”

The part gives the actress a chance to hit new notes. Initially, she might seem to be rushing into old-maidhood, but that only increases the ache. Because Ms. Chastain reads young, she has made a secret of her age, which varies by publication from 31 (Danish Wikipedia) to 35 (Associated Press)—but in this play, the older the better.

By all accounts, the real Catherine Sloper seems to have been Gertrude Tredwell of 29 East Fourth Street, a landmarked and still-standing building now known as The Merchant’s House Museum. It’s the only 19th century family home in New York City preserved intact—true to Ms. Tredwell’s wishes, kept “as Papa wanted it.” She was born in that house in 1840, eight years after it was built, and lived there a spinster with her also-unmarried sisters till she died in an upstairs bedroom in 1933.

Stories of her stymied love life reached the ears of actress Fanny Kemble, who relayed them to Henry James. He got a novella out of it, changing the names to protect the overly innocent and moving the location a few blocks west and a tad uptown. Ruth and Augustus Goetz reworked Washington Square, which James published in 1880, into a focused father-daughter conflict in 1947 and brought it to Broadway as The Heiress, starring Wendy Hiller and Basil Rathbone. Their Catherine is a fragile, desperate-to-please creature, left to her embroidery by a hard-hearted father who scares away her suitors with threats of disinheritance; she’s a wan ugly duckling who skips swan and turns into a very angry bird.

There is much for Ms. Chastain to play here; the arc runs from pliable putty to Bethlehem Steel. “I’m really looking forward to the journey,” she said. “Here’s a woman who defines herself first by who her father says she is, then by who her suitor says she is. By the end of the play, she decides who she is. That is so modern, so relevant. Thirty years from now, it is going to be a story that people can relate to.”

David Strathairn, an implosive, emotionally parsimonious actor, is pretty perfectly cast for this revival as her stern father. Morris Townsend, the sweet-faced outsider contending for Catherine’s affections (and/or the family fortune)—Montgomery Clift in the film—is now Broadway-bowing Dan Stevens who, as Matthew Crawley on the TV series Downton Abbey, is usually the one fighting off gold diggers. Lending important support to the proceedings as its undesignated matchmaker is two-time Tony winner Judith Ivey, who has already done time on Washington Square (in Agnieszka Holland’s remarkably unfelt 1997 film translation of the original book); here she has been upgraded from Aunt Elizabeth to Aunt Lavinia.

Mr. Stevens and Ms. Chastain are the latest unexpected stars that director Moises Kaufman has recruited for Broadway. Doubtlessly tapping as fast as he could, he brought Jane Fonda back to the boards in 2009 after an absence of 46 years in a play of his own making (33 Variations), and he talked Robin Williams into making his Broadway debut at age 58—as a tiger, yet!—in last year’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.

“I’m always looking for talented actors,” Mr. Kaufman said. “I think what they do is a magical, mysterious thing, so I’m always looking for actors who can articulate complex ideas on stage. I think everybody in this cast can do that.”

And Ms. Chastain? “I followed her work from the beginning, both on stage and on film, and I’ve always been very, very taken with her. She has a kind of emotional intelligence that is very well-suited for this play—and also she’s a Juilliard-trained actress, so she has all the stage chops you need to embody a role like that.”

Ms. Chastain happens to have made it through Juilliard on a Robin Williams-funded scholarship. Did he play that card? “Actually, I did,” Mr. Kaufman sheepishly admitted.

“I’ve never met him,” Ms. Chastain said of her benefactor, “but there are going to be a couple of opportunities this fall. I’ll be very glad, because I want to thank him.”

After graduating in 2003, the actress went West and found that a formal Juilliard training meant zip to casting directors in Los Angeles. It was a play that finally got her noticed—Oscar Wilde’s Salome, of all arcane things, which Al Pacino frequently “revisits” to tinker with. When he cast Ms. Chastain in the title role opposite his King Herod, in a production at Los Angeles’s Wadsworth Theater, her problem getting agents to see her work was instantly solved. A film—her first—resulted: Wilde Salomé, with Mr. Pacino tripling as actor, director and writer/adapter.

Wilde Salomé sent her off on a low-budget, high-art indie-film tangent. There were lots of logjams, delays and rerouting in this indie world, which, more than any grand plan, accounts for The Jessica Chastain Blitzkrieg of 2011, when she was splattered all over the multiplexes in six different flicks—only one less than the Mighty Tailor’s record of seven-with-one-blow. (The one that got away was Diana—as in Princess Diana—and, when her schedule wouldn’t permit, Naomi Watts rushed in for the tiara fitting.)

San Diego critics wound up honoring Ms. Chastain for her “Body of Work”—even if it was for only a single year; all six were cited: The Debt, Coriolanus, Texas Killing Fields, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Help. The last three got her the New York Film Critics Circle nod for Best Supporting Actress. She also Oscar-competed in that category for The Help, but lost to the film’s better baker, Octavia Spencer.

But it wasn’t all that Chastain commotion that got Broadway to beckon. “I received the offer for The Heiress, actually, at the premiere of The Debt, almost a year and a half ago, and that was before all the other movies came out,” she insisted. “It was before all the wonderful things—The Help and The Tree of Life—came my way during award season, and it was just that, when I read the play, I was so moved by Catherine. Then, after meeting with Moises, I knew it was something I absolutely wanted to do, so it wasn’t like ‘I had this great success in films so I’ve decided to go back to theater.’ This came into my life right before all the movies came out, and I felt such kinship with this character that I just had to do it.”

Between The Debt and Coriolanus, Ms. Chastain had a brush with theater’s enfant terrible, Peter Sellars, doing Desdemona to John Ortiz’s Othello and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Iago. They rehearsed in Vienna, played Germany and came to New York’s Skirball Center in 2009. It was the avant-garde director’s first show here in 30 years, and The New York Times was still not amused: “exasperatingly misconceived.”

“That Othello was a very difficult production,” she recalled. “In fact, I really didn’t know if I had the lion heart to come back to theater, but I feel very protected now. Actually, this is the longest time since I did theater.

“When you’re doing a play, it’s basically saying, ‘Here I am.’ It’s a very vulnerable thing. On film, it’s vulnerable, but there’s a time delay. With theater, what I love so much is the shared experience between the actor and the audience. You’re almost breathing at the same time, like there’s shared emotion—but also, with that shared emotion, you feel when they’re not with you, and that can be a difficult experience.”

She knows what she’s up against with The Heiress. “I’ve seen the film version and Washington Square, but I’ve never been in a theater and watched a live performance. Honestly, for me—I’m all about research. Hopefully, next year, I’m going to play Miss Julie, and I’m going to see as many versions of Miss Julie as I can get my hands on.”

She has already made a field trip to 29 East Fourth, quite a déjà vu-inducing experience, as the set design for the current revival, like those of the 1947 production and the 1949 film, is based on the furnishings of The Merchant’s House. She even gave a close inspection to the stately staircase that returned Gertrude Tredwell to permanent spinsterhood. An actor prepares—to break hearts.


Hollywood Star to Washington Square: Jessica Chastain Returns to the Stage, This Time on Broadway