By Wendy Wasserstein
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Emerie Snyder, Catherine Weidner and Ellen Karas as Heidi Holland (Photo: Scott Suchman)
I approached Arena’s production of The Heidi Chronicles hoping to finally get on board the love train for this signature Wendy Wasserstein work. I’ve enjoyed most of her other plays and can’t rave enough about American Daughter that I saw both in New York and at Arena Stage. Chronicles, on the other hand, has always eluded me and seemed filled with petty and chatty rather meaningless meanderings on the meaning of life, with sitcom sensibility. I was sure that I was missing something–the piece won both a Tony and Pulitzer, and I just knew that in the theater savvy hands of Tazewell Thompson, The Heidi Chronicles would finally bounce into my psyche with verve and spunk. Looks like I’ll have to settle for this solid rendition which while not buoyant, has at least helped answer my age-old question of what’s it really all about?
There’s no escaping the fact that the world has changed for women in terms of opportunities and perceptions, and as such, there is an unrelenting stodginess about the premise and concepts on which the play is set. Chronicles rely so heavily on defining the characters by the period’s rather superficial pop status quo, the scenes have a tendency to come across as somewhat dated and irrelevant, but Wasserstein’s ahead-of- her-time sensibility and trust in her characters, flaws and all, keep the Chronicles afloat, at least for now.
It’s a credit to Tazewell Thompson’s direction that the production zips along as well as it does. His keen sense of Wasserstein’s comedic timing and loving affection for her work are apparent in each scene. This is no small feat since he also has to juggle the play’s episodic format, and in the round at that, a kind of dancing backwards in heels. The casting also helps with Marty Lodge in the role of the guy you love to hate, Heidi’s charismatic love interest Scoop Rosenbaum. Who else could bring a tinged vulnerability to help salvage a character who describes himself as obnoxious within the first 15 minutes and then proceeds to be true to his word for the entire show? Scoop struts along and spouts narcissistic jargon, but at the end of Act I, when he holds a crumbled (and jilted) Heidi in an embrace, he admits his pragmatic rationale for selecting a suitable wife, knowing how pitiful his choice is, but is unwillingly to accept the sparring partnership of a "liberated" woman. As in The Death of Ivan Illyich, we know the consequences of an unfulfilled life and watch Scoop grow older (and no wiser) as he stumbles about looking for happiness and fulfillment in all the wrong places.
Although these are Heidi’s chronicles, she’s just not as interesting. As in my initial reaction twenty years ago, Heidi still seems to be standing around a lot watching events unfold around her. Ellen Karas, accomplished in other roles, has a stand-offish approach, and doesn’t help us tap into Heidi’s inner workings, but admittedly, there’s only so much one can do. The part as written puts the character in passive positions – she sits on the sidelines and is talked into just about every action scene, whether it’s having fun with her new found buddy Peter, a nicely calibrated performance by Wynn Harmon, or succumbing to Scoop’s sneering advances. She literally sits along the sidelines of her first women’s rap session, and can’t squeeze in a word during a televised panel interview. Even the Women in the Arts protest rally is orchestrated by someone else who dictates who can participate and the marchers’ location. Heidi’s role as passive cataloger of life events is most evident when she tries to answer a question as a successful alumnus—Women, where are we going? She stands at the podium, stammers and starts, confesses she doesn’t have any answers and instead painfully catalogs and recounts her day to explain why she doesn’t have a prepared speech. This seems to be a turning point for the character since in her subsequent scenes she at least takes actions, cleans out closets and gives away some treasured record collections to prep for a long distance move. Once again, she seeks the company of her lifelong confidant Peter and they console each other while assessing their current states of unhappiness. That’s when I clocked yet another 30 minutes to go, and wondered where Wasserstein thought she was going with this.
What I finally realized is that despite her academic achievements, Heidi was a wandering soul without a ballast, or anchor, or centered control to infuse meaning in her life. While Scoop’s juvenile philanderings with the next hot young thing are obvious manifestations of discontent, Heidi ponders and pouts and relocates, and finally flat out states she is unhappy. And sure, it comes across as whiny in this post Jerry Springer/Donohue/Oprah, reality show era, and may not seem like a big deal. But, some of us remember those days of lockstep acquiescence, when being a non-conformist meant something.
Heidi works hard and eventually achieves prominence in her chosen profession as art historian while she fumes and fusses and eventually discovers her own purpose and pursuit of happiness. Her final decision to adopt a child seems to come from out of nowhere, for which Wasserstein, who passed away suddenly last year, will eternally catch flack, but it’s such an organic choice that I’m finally ready to let it rest in peace and accept Heidi’s assessment of her own sense of self and happiness. And that’s what this production gets across, a sense of "Let it Be," and "Imagine." These are not every woman’s Chronicles, just Heidi’s. Watching her grapple with her sometimes silly and mundane, but heartfelt struggles liberates the rest of us to do the same, whether we burned our lingerie back in the day or are expressing ourselves on YouTube.
Susan Bennett brings young fresh spontaneity to her various roles, costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh helps Heidi stride into each decade in fabulous attire, and sound designer Fabian Obispo compiles hit after wonder-year hit. Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles will take you back, and while it doesn’t answer, "Women: Where are we Going?" it’s a decent reflection on the fact that we’ve come a long way.
(Running time: approx 2:45) The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein runs through May 13 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets: $57 – $67. Call 202-488-3300 or purchase online.