Catherine Sloper (Karen McCartney) is heir to her dead mother’s fortune, and will inherit a good deal more from her father, Dr Sloper (Denis Conway). She’d be a prize wife for an eligible young New Yorker, except that, as far as her father is concerned, she has no other charms apart from being very rich. She is, in the words of Henry James, whose novel Washington Square is the basis for this 1947 adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, “a dull, plain girl”.
To her father, she is a cruel joke of fate: Having none of the beauty or talent of the mother who died in giving birth to her. And while Conway’s Dr Sloper has the egotism of a man who’s used to being right, his controlling impulse and his inability to forgive his daughter, or like her, are not cruel, but instead wounds he carries, undiagnosed.
McCartney’s comic discomfort and clumsiness in the early scenes seem a little forced, but her hunched tenseness and downcast expression soon become dominant, set off at times by well-poised displays of mild panic. We are not surprised at her giddiness at courtship, having experienced her as a coiled spring, riven with uncertainties that are internalised from years of listening to her father listing her shortcomings.
For her penniless suitor Morris Townsend (Donal Gallery), Catherine is a ticket “home”, as he calls it, to a life he’s grown accustomed to in a brief, spendthrift period but will never earn for himself.
Marion O’Dwyer as Mrs Penniman, Catherine’s widowed aunt, gives depth and poignancy to a character of superficial silliness and sentimentality. She spurs Morris on, urged not just by the vicarious thrill, but also by her own keen and painful awareness of the lot of a lone woman. It’s one of several points at which David Grindley’s taut production deftly signals the wider world beyond its drawing-room setting.
Dr Sloper, of course, suspects Morris immediately and sets out to discredit him. But the complexity of his and Catherine’s relationship means it’s not enough for him simply to be right. When logic is this cold and cruel, perhaps self-delusion is the lesser evil.