The Help star leads the cast of the stage production as Catherine Sloper, a shy young woman yearning for her wealthy, intimidating father’s acceptance, but many theatre critics felt she struggled to make the transformation from a meek girl to a raging woman.
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney brands the actress “underpowered” and laments her “inconsistency of characterisation”, while the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincantelli was disappointed that Chastain failed to bring more fury to the play’s most famous line, when Sloper declares, “Yes, I can be cruel. I have been taught by masters!”
Vincantelli writes, “The words should hit us like a hammer. Here, they barely graze.”
Chastain’s performance – in the role made famous by Olivia de Havilland in William Wyler’s 1949 movie adaptation – wasn’t a winning one for The New York Times writer Ben Brantley or Newsday’s Linda Winer either.
Comparing the revival to Cherry Jones’ Tony Award-winning stint in the same role in a 1995 production, Brantley states, “I never felt the urgency of filial and romantic love festering into vengeful hatred, which should inform any production of The Heiress.”
But it wasn’t all bad for Chastain – Bloomberg News critic Jeremy Gerard applauds her take on Sloper as “close to perfect”, and Entertainment Weekly’s reviewer gives The Heiress an A grade, writing, “In her Broadway debut, Chastain conveys social discomfort and awkwardness without veering into caricature.”
Director Moises Kaufman also took his fair share of criticism – Winer blasts him for his “emotionally simplistic production”, while Rooney blames Chastain’s mediocre turn on “questionable directorial choices”.
The actress’ co-stars David Strathairn and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens enjoyed better reviews, but it was the “sublimely funny” Judith Ivey who garnered the highest praise from the media, putting on a “great” and “delightful” performance as the amused Aunt Lavinia.
The Heiress runs at New York’s Walter Kerr Theater until February (13).