Review: The Heidi Chronicles by The City Theatre Company
by Michael Meigs

Wendy Wasserstein, playwright of The Heidi Chronicles, died in 2005, cut down in full artistic activity by lymphoma. Her play Third, which premiered that year, was performed in Austin last September by the Paradox Players.   The City Theatre has just opened The Heidi Chronicles for a four-week run, featuring a talented young cast, clever staging and some still unanswered big questions.


 One of five children of a wealthy Jewish family in Brooklyn, Wasserstein graduated from Mount Holyoke, then obtained master's degrees from City College of New York in 1971 and from the Yale School of Drama in 1976. Her graduate thesis project at Yale was produced off-Broadway in 1977, featuring Glenn Close, and then on PBS with Meryl Streep. Wasserstein wrote three more plays and then in 1989 The Heidi Chronicles won the Drama Desk award, the New York Critics' award for best new play, a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The juries for those awards must have recognized this play for its comic, yet earnest take on the emotional plight of highly educated American women. Female thirty-somethings faced contradictions and were assailed by cognitive dissonance when choosing between aspirations for careers and the allure of the safe, mostly suburban world of motherhood. If intelligent women were -- or should be -- the equals of men, why did so many of them decline to compete? And how could capable, successful female professionals establish the comfort, intimacy and family ties that seemed to accrue naturally to mothers and housewives in their warm and fuzzy little worlds?

In her portrayal of Heidi Holland from high school through her young middle age as a respected university professor, Wasserstein deliberately does not answer that question. 


Rachel McGinnis (ALT photo)The play opens with Heidi delivering a lecture to undergraduates on her academic specialty: talented women artists not commonly recognized in the history of art. Heidi is knowledgeable, humorous, and a bit patronizing. She reviews three striking, almost unknown paintings and recaps "to help you with next week's final exam." She dismisses class after a throwaway line about high school dances.

And then time warps back to a high school dance in the early 1960s, where a solemn and studious young Heidi Holland has accompanied her giggly blonde friend Susan. . . .

Wasserstein moves Heidi and her acquaintances forward in short time jumps: to 1968, as college students canvassing for Eugene McCarthy's campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency; to a brash, huggy women's consciousness raising group in Ann Arbor in 1970. That's a very comic, unforgiving little scene, by the way -- and Martina Ohlhauser is very expressive as the new arrival initially baffled and worried by all the kumbayah. Time then moves forward to Heidi's 1974 participation in a march against the Art Institute in Chicago, protesting the lack of representation of women artists; to a society wedding at the Hotel Pierre in Manhattan in 1977; and then, through the 1980s in New York City, through scenes in apartments, a restaurant, a television studio and a hospital in New York City.

Director Susie Gidseg and designer Nick Renaud use images projected on a screen at center stage rear to fill out the relatively spare stage settings, but also, between scenes, to tick us forward through time with photos from those years. Some are instantly recognizable; others give a moment of whimsy or subtle commentary.

Counterpoised themes are at work in this piece. Wasserstein recalls shared moments and attitudes of the baby boom generation, making merciless fun of them; at the same time she presents us with characters wrapped in loneliness as they achieve career success.

Rachel McGinnis
The central trio forms about Heidi, played by Rachel McGinniss with quiet self-mastery and great poignancy. She is accompanied through the years of the play by the loud, brash, and highly intelligent Scoop Rosenbaum, college dropout, journalist, her first lover, a philanderer and an entrepreneur; and by Peter Patrone, initially cheery as a student in high school and in med school, then increasingly beleaguered as a pediatrician, realizing he is gay as he rises to prominence as a clinician and humanitarian.

Heidi's peripheral acquaintances do not share the anxieties or the introspection of the central trio. Her buddy Susan Johnson (played by the energetic Christa Haxthausen) is a bright enthusiast who flings herself successively into feminism, sheep ranching, business school, and television production, with no signs of amorous discontent. 

Samantha Brewer, Charles P. Stites (ALT photo)Scoop marries Lisa (Samantha Brewer), a well-off, good-humored illustrator from a prominent Memphis family, who thrives as a mother despite Scoop's infidelities. Lisa's sister Denise (Martina Ohlhauser) and other women swell up equally great with child in the middle passages of the play.

Heidi is the perpetual loner and outsider. Susan brings her to the high school dance, then abandons her; Susan brings her to the the women's consciousness-raising session, most of which 
Heidi watches with uncertainty and trepidation.


Gabriel Smith, Rachel McGinnis, Charles P. Stites (ALT photo) In their full maturity, when the trio of Peter, Heidi, and Scoop is invited to a morning television interview, her chatty hostess and fellow guests don't allow her more than half a sentence. We learn that during a Fulbright grant in England she was involved with a man, but he declined to accompany her when she received an appointment to Columbia University.

Wasserstein constructs the impossible triangle -- Scoop loves Heidi but won't marry a woman whose gifts rival his; Peter loves Heidi but his passion is for male waiters and male physicians; Heidi gives her body to Scoop over a period of years and her heart, tentatively and impossibly, to Peter.

Charles P. Stites (ALT photo)Charles Stites fits very comfortably into the much-larger-than-life role of Scoop Rosenbaum. For all his badgering and critical evaluation of others, Stites shows us Scoop as a great big softy for Heidi, and we are annoyed, as Wasserstein wished, by Scoop's inability to give himself fully to her. Stites blusters with the best of them, and then, lowering his voice, moving close to her, working hands and body language, he shows us the man's deep, reluctant attachment to her. And he's a smiling public man -- unlike the others, Stites as Scoop knows exactly how to pose sincerity to the camera.

Gabriel Smith as Peter Padrone is a bundle of intensity Gabriel Smith, Rachel McGinnis (ALT photo)throughout, so much so that one wonders what, exactly, attracted Heidi to him. The simple fact that he wanted to talk to her at the high school dance? Though Heidi in the text and Heidi as played by Rachel McGinnis is quiet, was she so introverted that she was unable to meet any other men? When he meets her at the Art Institute, Peter's humor comes off as sarcasm.  Late in the play, he is stressed by the AIDS epidemic, haunted and harsh, lecturing her cruelly on the selfishness of her plans to leave New York. Smith's Peter Padrone turns into a self-righteous and self-centered jerk. I would have preferred to see some of the vulnerability hiding behind that shield.

(via Time on-line)I'm an exact contemporary of Wendy Wasserstein. You might think that would give me some affinity to the settings and reference points of the play. But even though I recognized those images and I participated in the popular culture of the day, I found this twenty-year-old play pretty dated. First of all, the settings and references weren't really that relevant to the actions. And some references are now obscure -- an audience of 1989 might have found extremely funny the sarcastic references to Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter's chubby OMB director. But the only Lance known to most in the Austin audience is Lance Armstrong.

The issues have not changed greatly in the last twenty years, but they are no longer new to the public imagination. From the perspective of the present day, Heidi Holland appears to be less a victim of her time than a victim of her own reticence and indecision. And the same applies to Wasserstein.

But leaving those curmudgeonly grumblings to one side, City Theatre's production of The Heidi Chronicles is lively and attractive. It gives us the story of an intelligent woman absorbed in her work, surrounded by the absurdities and contradictions of modern American life, endeavoring to make sense of it all. Her erstwhile lover Scoop Rosenbaum is a stand-in for all those American men intimidated by self-assured women endowed with brains. In this piece there are smiles along with the frustrations, and Heidi does find a solution to her loneliness -- without a man, thank you very much, and without shortchanging herself emotionally or intellectually.


Review by Elizabeth Cobbe for the Austin Chronicle, April 2 


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The Heidi Chronicles
by Wendy Wasserstein
City Theatre Company

March 26 - April 19, 2009
City Theatre
3823 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78722