Watching Rep Stage’s luminous production of The Heidi Chronicles as a spinster of a certain age, you don’t know whether to belt out “Mirror, Mirror” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies or simply smile through tears like many of your fellow baby boomers in the audience.
Chose the latter, sparing fellow theatergoers the dubious pleasure of my singing voice (at least until I got in the car and then all bets were off). For a lot of my generation—and gender—The Heidi Chronicles is a touchstone play. It’s a reunion in the footlights with your best self, as well as with the people who passed in and out of your life and especially the friends you’ve managed to hold onto for decades. A peculiar victory, that.
The Heidi Chronicles, like playwright Wendy Wasserstein herself, is smart and funny and kind. Wasserstein’s plays are feminine and feminist without being exclusive—under Jenna Duncan’s direction, the Rep Stage’s production, in particular, sensitively explores the often-chafed alliance between women’s lib and gay lib in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That could be because of Joseph Ritsch’s performance as Peter Padrone, Heidi’s gay best friend whom she meets in Noël Coward-Gertrude Lawrence fashion at a private school mixer. His generous, sweet and savage portrayal of the truth-telling Peter not only warms the relationship with Heidi, but also makes us consider the parallel gay liberation movement and the times it coincided and collided with feminist ideals.
Like Jane Austen, Wendy focused on the white, well-educated and well-to-do; their writings are generous and witty observations of human behavior that transcend societal constraints. With all her plays, you get the sense Wasserstein wanted to reach out and reassure people, especially women, that they’re not alone and while they may be defined by their choices, they are not walled in.
With 1989’s Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein captured what women in every stage of their lives encountered growing up in the ‘50s through the ‘80s; the compromises they made in the pursuit of the mythic promise of “having it all.”
Piercingly, the play also portrays that imposter phenomenon that inflicts many women who, on the exterior, look successful, energetic and on top of things but inside feel worthless and stranded. That’s not an easy thing to see onstage but Beth Hylton is so radiant and brave as Heidi Holland, she kinda takes us by the hand and allows us to look in the mirror and like the good, sad woman we see looking back.
Hylton’s Heidi takes us on a tour of her and her friends’ lives as they struggle with identity and gender roles. With Wasserstein’s pointed, witty observations, the play could be a snarky and glib tidbit that spoofs and celebrates the clothes, music, social mores and slogans of the depicted eras.
While the comic element is indeed there, director Duncan approaches the play with the earnestness and clear-eyed gaze of Heidi Holland herself, which intensifies the integrity of Wasserstein’s message. The comedy arises from pain and growth rather than the nostalgic hoot of the period settings.
There are few heroines as demanding of themselves as Heidi Holland, a prissy and achingly serious Ivy-League educated art historian who lives—and suffers—by the credo that everyone deserves to live up to their potential.
The trick question is whether Heidi believes that about herself.
The choices she makes—to champion the works of forgotten female artists, to not give up her ambitions and work to marry her longtime lover Scoop Rosenbaum (Rex Daugherty), who admits in a heartbreaking scene at his own damn wedding that he loves Heidi but wants a wife who gives up everything to attend to him—impact not only her life and those around her, but society at large.
Heidi, with her prickly defensiveness and high principles, is not always a day at the beach. Yet to know her is infinitely rewarding. She’s that kind of woman who makes you want to be a better person. You can’t say the same for Scoop, played with charismatic, man-child self-centeredness by Daugherty as the bad boy you’re happy to go to hell with.
The Heidi Chronicles
closes September 24, 2017
Details and tickets
There’s a scene between Scoop, Heidi, and Peter that could have been written yesterday—the trio is appearing on a New York talk show on the topic of Baby Boomers and both Scoop and Peter “mansplain” everything, including feminism, while Heidi can barely get a word in or speak uninterrupted.
Heidi is surrounded throughout her life by interesting, overreaching women, notably her oldest friend, Susan (the excellent and powerful Melissa Flaim), who goes from a teenager rolling up her skirt to attract a boy at a high school dance to a feminist lawyer on a womyn’s collective in Montana to a high-powered Hollywood executive pitching sitcoms about quirky single women living in the big city.
Alina Collins Maldonado, with her impeccable timing and take-no-prisoners presence, stands out whether she’s playing a bullhorn feminist named Fran, a canny magazine editor trying to have it all or a lesbian dancing the hora. Hallie Cooper gracefully brings out the spine and steel as Lisa, Scoop’s so-called “traditional” and compliant wife while Madeline Rose Burrows and Anderson Wells shine in a variety of small, but pivotal roles.
In light of this year’s Women’s March in Washington in January, the play pertinently reminds us that the feminist movement was important and groundbreaking—for better and worse—and asks us if things are actually better for women today or if our subjugation is now just differently ingrained.
The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein . Director: Jenna Duncan . Featuring: Beth Hylton, Joseph W. Ritsch, Rex Daugherty, Melissa Flaim, Alina Collins Maldonado, Hallie Cooper, Madeline Rose Burrows, Anderson Wells . Set Design: James Fouchard. Lighting Design: Adam Mendelson. Sound design: Sarah O’Halloran. Costume Design: Eric Abele. Dramaturg: Lisa Wilde. Properties Design: Mollie Singer. Stage Manager: Julie DeBakey Smith. Assistant Stage Manager: Brittany Federici. Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.