‘The Heiress‘ by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz is presently playing on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street Southwest, Washington, D.C. until March 16, 2019. The play was suggested by the novel by Henry James, Washington Square. This production is directed by Seema Sueko, featuring Laura C. Harris as Catherine Sloper, the young heiress, James Whalen as her controlling father, Dr. Austin Sloper, and Jonathan David Martin as her charming suitor, Morris Townsend. The play takes place in the 1880s and deals with society’s treatment of unmarried women of means at the time.
Tickets are available online.
Jonathan David Martin (Morris Townsend) Arena Stage debut! Other credits include “War Horse” at Lincoln Center Theater (original Broadway cast). Off-Broadway productions at the National Black Theatre, 59E59 Theaters and Bushwick Starr; regionally at Theater Alliance, Two River Theater, Portland Center Stage, Shakespeare Santa Monica, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Empty Space Theatre, NMA Physical Theatre Ensemble and Washington Ensemble Theater, where he was a founding co-artistic director. He is also the co-artistic director of NYC-based Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative whose original works include Olityelwe (59E59 Theaters, UK and South Africa tours), “Point of Departure,” “Head in the Sand,” “The Alien Nation,” “#HashtagProject” and “Tangible Hope Project,” a documentary series highlighting community change-makers across America. TV credits include Unforgettable and Believe. Annenberg Fellow for the Arts. MFA: NYU Graduate Acting.
Jonathan David Martin was kind enough to answer some questions that I presented to him.
Tell us a little more about yourself. Where were you born? Why did you become an actor?
I was born and raised in Monterey, CA. I actually visited the DC area regularly growing up to visit my grandparents who lived in Alexandria (my grandfather was retired Vice Admiral William I. Martin). Monterey was a great place to get into the arts in general as a kid: I had the opportunity to play in the Monterey Jazz Festival as a 15-year-old trumpet player and take in the wide-range of professional and community theater in the area. I have to give a lot of credit to my high school drama teacher, Larry Welch, for being nuts enough to let a group of high-schoolers put on very complex shows like Chess. I was pretty socially inept but highly competitive as an adolescent, so theater was the one place where I felt I could excel as well as be social without worrying about what to say all the time.
How does acting at a regional theatre like Arena Stage differ, and how is it similar, to working in New York City?
Arena Stage in some respects reminds me of working at Lincoln Center Theatre in New York in that the staff and creative teams at both theaters are incredibly skilled and incredibly kind people to work with. At both theaters, they treat their guest artists really well and Arena, in particular, has gone out of their way to make us feel like we are a part of the company, not just visitors, which means a lot to me.
Arena differs quite a lot from the majority of experiences I have had performing (and producing) in New York, in that often I perform in one of the many theater spaces in NYC that are small and/or have a fraction of the resources of the many (wonderful) institutional theaters that exist here in DC.
There are also far more experimental spaces in New York than DC, so as an actor I found myself more likely to be part of new works of theater that don’t often fit in the repertoire of most regional theaters. Performing in works that are more experimental in nature usually leads to a rehearsal and performance experience can be really different than that of a regional theater.
What do you think about the character of Morris Townsend? Is he a gold digger, a misguided love or a combination these two? Or is he, in your mind, something else?
Great question! And I’m totally going to be coy and let audience members come to their own conclusions about Morris’ motives. I will say that I worked really closely with Seema Sueko (The Heiress’ magnificent director) to create a character that could elicit sympathy from a modern audience. There are moments in most performances where I’m surprised that the response I get from the audience is wonderfully, weirdly at odds with the experience I’m having in the character’s shoes.
How does the play which takes place in the 1880s stay meaningful to a modern audience?
In our current cultural and political moment, it’s powerful to see the story of a young woman finding her voice, her own will and desires in a world that is dictated by men. especially as it is set in an era that is, at least on the surface, so different than our own. Also, it’s a story about love and authenticity—who is sincere and who is fake— and I think this is both a timely and a timeless theme that makes the play such a great thriller and produced as often as it is 70 years after its premiere.
Have you ever seen the movie The Heiress with Olivia de Haviland and Montgomery Clift? Have you read the novel Washington Square by Henry James on which it is based? Any of the Broadway revivals? If so, did this hurt or help your interpretation and how? If not, did you make a conscious effort not to view the movie or read the book and why?
I made a conscious decision to not read the book or watch either film adaptation (there is a film version of Washington Square of the same title from 1997) before I had developed some initial thoughts on the character. I did read a few other Henry James novellas to get a flavor of the period and the social rules of the day. I read Washington Square just before we started rehearsal and then watched a few clips of the films midway through rehearsals. I think holding off on seeing someone else’s interpretation until I had started to flesh out my own was helpful; it helped me focus on what was useful to learn from the other performances and to then add that knowledge to the point of view I was already cultivating for Morris. I will say that I am a bit jealous of the film version of The Heiress’ “meet cute” moment between the two lovers at a social dance. I do love that scene!