Trinity Rep's "Heidi Chronicles": Guarding the Chips

Angela Brazil in "Heidi Chronicles"
(photo: Mark Turek)

The Heidi Chronicles”, a play by Wendy Wasserstein, was a watershed theatrical event when it premiered off-Broadway in November 1988, moving to Broadway a few months later. While it went on to win the Tony and Drama Desk Awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and ran over six hundred performances, it was the subject matter of the work that captured universal attention. Hailed as way ahead of its time, it was an on-point but gently skewering feminist event that has outlived its author, who tragically died too young (at only 55) in 2006. While Wasserstein had other successful plays such as “the Sisters Rosensweig”, “Isn't It Romantic” and “Uncommon Women and Others”, it is Heidi with her chronic wit who has so aptly endured, as evidenced in the current production by Trinity Rep. Humor is sometimes shrewdly effective in making cracks in glass ceilings, and this production is a lovely reminder of the power of theater to inform and entertain at one and the same time. Three decades later, this work, even while showing some creaks here and there, serves to rebuke us for not yet fulfilling its message.

The story of the titular art historian Heidi Holland (an excellent Angela Brazil) covers a twenty year span, from her high school years to her highly respected career. Each of two acts begins with a didactic prologue (presumably the “Heidi Chronicles” referred to towards the end of the play) about vastly neglected female painters. Along the way she encounters several characters who will become important to her over the two decades portrayed. At a high school dance with her friend Susan Johnston (Rachel Christopher) in 1965, she meets the closeted Peter Patrone (Charlie Thurston). Two years later she meets the other man destined to be a part of her whole life, Scoop Rosenbaum (Mauro Hantman) at a presidential campaign rally for Eugene McCarthy at which he, noticing her shyness, slyly asks if she is guarding the (potato) chips. Still later, she joins an encounter group, with Susan, run by radical feminist Fran (Anna Miles). Perhaps the best, and most devastatingly true, line belongs to Fran: “Every woman...has been taught that the desires and dreams of her husband, her son or her boss are much more important than her own”. Scoop chooses to marry below his aspirations, and Heidi eventually decides she doesn't need to be married in order to become a mother, somewhat reflecting the playwright's real life; it should also be noted that there are several humorous references to Brown University.

Brazil manages to convey the complex character that is Heidi, and both Thurston and Hantman play well off her, as does Christopher, especially as Heidi blossoms (or not). Also appearing in several roles are Ashley Monique Butler, Joe Wilson, Jr. and Rebecca Gibel (especially funny in interplay with Thurston, as talk show host April, though the scene itself is incredible in the bad sense of the term). All are in fine synch thanks to Director Vivienne Benesch. The minimalist Set Design by Lee Savage, Lighting Design by Dan Scully, Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz and evolving Costume Design by Tracy Christensen (with a recurring emphasis on changing shoe styles) all contribute to conveying a sense of the passages our heroine is making.

Benesch has commented that the play remains “fiercely relevant”. But while it's undeniably true that Wasserstein asks some serious questions (as we mature, how do our adult responsibilities affect our youthful ideals? Can one balance career and family? Is it OK to feel sad when our hopes are compromised?) that are still disappointingly evident in our culture today, the play itself frequently reveals how dated its writing is.. The emotionally fragile Heidi, in a famous Act Two monologue (superbly delivered by Brazil despite its excessive length), reveals in anecdotal form her feeling of being stranded, at the same time superior and yet worthless. Still, remarkably for a play dealing with such dated baby boomer issues as Vietnam, much of the playwright's targets are still fodder for discussion. There remain a few missteps, such as a talk show scene straining credulity, and some relatively lame lines (such as Scoop's “I never meant to hurt you”), but by and large the play still succeeds in moving us. As Heidi herself puts it, “all people have the right to fulfill their potential”; that is, as it might be put today, if roadblocks and glass ceilings don't prevent them. And Scoop notes near the end of the play, “America needs heroes”, and, when confronting how sad Heidi admits to being, “unhappy people who open doors usually are”. When he expresses the hope that his magazine, Boomer, will be his chronicle, he reminds her that her lectures were her way of putting women back into the narrative. Heidi ultimately finds hope for a more inclusive future in the daughter in her arms, “a heroine for the twenty-first” century.

There are others guarding those chips today, and we must let them fall where they may. Wasserstein herself may rest peacefully; contrary to her fears expressed through Heidi, her work, far removed from worthless, is funny, sad and superior.

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