by CHRISTINE SARKES SASSEVILLE and RACHEL ADAMOVICH
The dilemma in reviewing the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles at the Guthrie Theater is to describe a transformative and near perfect theater experience without sounding clichéd. From the bravura performance of lead actress Kate Wetherhead as Heidi Holland to the equally excellent supporting cast, music, staging, period costumes and poignantly funny dialogue, this performance is what theater ought to be. Maybe the themes of social change during the women and men’s liberation movements of the 1960s through the ‘80s and Heidi’s “either/or” choice between career and family hit close to home to this mid-life reviewer. Given the pin-dropping silence during several monologues and the enthusiastic standing ovation the cast received on opening night, many in the audience felt similarly the impact of the play.
This is not a hit-you-over-the-head-with-our-social-relevance kind of show: we are moved to contemplate the impact of the women’s movement through very funny banter between characters you recognize and appreciate, however flawed. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein pokes fun at our pop culture peculiarities (Farah Fawcett hair flips, greed-is-good consumerism) and we groan in recognition. The play, which premiered in 1988, is still surprisingly relevant considering the current media debate over the meaning of feminism, gay rights and marriage and work-life balance, for example.
The plot follows Heidi Holland from a high school dance in the 1960s to her career as a successful art historian more than twenty years later. Heidi’s classroom lectures about overlooked women artists throughout history were among my favorite scenes. Though most of the characters are women, there are two important male characters; Peter Patrone (Zach Shaffer), a gay pediatrician who is arguably Heidi’s best friend, and Scoop Rosenbaum (Ben Graney), Heidi’s first love with whom she has a lifelong, complex relationship. Scoop’s character is a fascinating mixture of arrogance, selfishness and piercing intelligence, who challenges Heidi to come out of her shell through sheer force of personality. Graney infuses Scoop with a frenetic and irresistible charm. Peter is the one character who truly understands Heidi and he is the truth-teller friend – the one who points out Heidi’s self-absorption in the midst of his own personal crisis and the growing AIDS epidemic. Rounding out the cast were the excellent supporting female characters who accompanied Heidi on her reluctant journeys to adulthood (Tracey Maloney, Stacia Rice, Mo Perry and Eleonore Dendy). Heidi often stands as an observer to her own life and these women force her into her present – participating in the largely female rituals of a consciousness-raising group, a wedding, a baby shower and reunions. Heidi is asked to defend her life choices as a writer, lecturer and friend to these characters who are connected to her throughout the decades. The music and costumes also serve the plot as almost distinct characters, such as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” playing during the feminist meeting, John Lennon’s “Imagine” after his assassination and during a baby shower and the 1970s “mom jeans.”
From Guest Reviewer Rachel Adamovich:
What would the late playwright and novelist Wendy Wasserstein have thought about ‘leaning in?” With the recent publication of Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s analysis whether women can “have it all” (hint: they can’t) , the ever-evolving conversation about women in leadership, work-life balance, professional ambition and personal identity has become a hot-button topic for many Gen Xers and Yers. While The Heidi Chronicles illustrates a woman’s search for self-actualization during the budding feminist movement of the 60s-80s, it is still evident that women today continue to grapple with the same issues that Wendy Wasserstein so thoughtfully portrayed 16 years ago. The Guthrie Theater’s adaptation of this classic play could not have been staged at a more relevant time.
Director Leigh Silverman beautifully captures the nuances and the subtexts in the script, which comes to life with the combination of both poetry and wit that Wasserstein intended. The audience cannot help but fall in love with Heidi and the supporting characters, perhaps because of – rather than in spite of – their very human flaws. We relate to their failures and mistakes, take pride in their accomplishments and cheer for them from the moment they step onstage. As Heidi struggles to find self-fulfillment throughout the performance, the audience is left asking the hard questions about where our society stands – then and now.
The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein, directed by Leigh Silverman. September 13 – October 26 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis. Tickets available at www.guthrietheater.org or call 612.377.2224 or 1.877.44.STAGE.