Seeing the revival of Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning play reminded me of how much it influenced my life
I'm always a bit anxious when I go to a Broadway revival of a show that I loved in its original incarnation. First off, it makes me feel old (or, more accurately, middle-aged—I suspect I'll be a card-carrying member of AARP the next time The Heidi Chronicles
comes around). But, more critically, I worry that on second sight I will discover the show isn't as powerful as I remembered. Sometimes I chalk that up to my taste being different when I was younger, but often it's because theatre that initially felt so timely now plays like a period piece.
Superficially, the late Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles
seems to be exactly that. After all, it is set in very specific eras as it traces the professional, political and personal evolution of the title character, who transforms from a bookish '60s teen, to an art historian flirting with feminism in the '70s, to a single-by-choice mom in the '80s before our eyes. The 1989 semi-autobiographical play won Wasserstein the Tony and the Pulitzer, bumping her career to another level. It also resulted in two marriages (original costars Joan Allen and Peter Friedman and replacements Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams
), inspired myriad treatises about the continuing struggles of women in a post-feminist age, and, I'm guessing, helped give Wasserstein the chutzpah to embark on single motherhood a decade later.
When Wasserstein died prematurely in 2006 at age 55 due to lymphoma, many of her obituaries proclaimed that she spoke for a generation of women
." While that's true, I would argue that she spoke to
many more generations, including mine. Although I'm a Gen Xer and she was a Boomer with more than twenty years between us, I felt an immediate kinship with Heidi Holland when my Silent Generation
mother took me to see the show in 1989. I was a teen, just like Heidi is at the outset, and while our outfits and music were different, I related to her smarts, sarcasm, and insecurity, all timeless qualities. Though I was too young to have attended women's support groups in the '70s, I certainly remembered my mom talking about them. (As it happens, my mother was a pre-women's lib feminist who began working as a computer programmer at IBM in the late '50s, which gave me a perhaps unrealistically optimistic perspective on women in the workplace.) And, like Heidi, I had a longtime gay best friend whom I had an unrequited crush on in high school.
Until this current revival starring Elisabeth Moss, I only saw The Heidi Chronicles
that one time (and never did make it through the not-so-great TV movie version
). Yet unconsciously, the show's themes and situations continued to resonate deeply for me as I aged. In college and throughout my twenties, I was involved in an on-again, off-again, hot-and-unhealthy romance with a brilliant but noncommittal guy, which mirrored Heidi's relationship with charismatic jerk Scoop Rosenbaum. And, of course, I wept on the shoulder of my gay pal about it many, many times, just like Heidi does with Peter Patrone. (Happily, I eventually kicked my Scoop to the curb and married a mensch, though you won't find his counterpart in the show.) I also became a mom to a daughter just a few months before Wasserstein died and tragically left her then-six-year-old girl behind.
Although I never met Wasserstein, I (like so many other theatre lovers) was shocked and devastated by her death. It was like losing a really funny, perceptive, and faithful friend. I even wrote a tribute to her
in which I shared the impact her work had on me, and lamented the fact that she wouldn't be able to pen the plays she undoubtedly had left in her. In the words of Lincoln Center Theater's André Bishop
---who was instrumental in developing the show at Playwrights Horizons
before it transferred to Broadway--- "[We] never got to see Wendy write about getting old, about being an older woman, an older mother." (I guess I'll have to do all of those things on my own, without Wasserstein's guidance or insight.)
And now, nine years after her passing, Wasserstein's most famous play is back on Broadway and I believe, despite being of its time, it also transcends its time. It's 2015 and we're still having heated, Heidi-type arguments about the gender pay gap
(even though we can't agree on the number
) and the impossibility of work-life balance
, especially for women who are mothers
; and the old "you can have it all" goal has been replaced by a "lean in" mantra that many women feel translates into an "actually, you can't have it all
The Millennial generation is coming of age and yet these conversations continue, albeit more openly and honestly than in the past thanks in large part to the work of Wasserstein and her compatriots (and, of course, the Internet and social media).
But The Heidi Chronicles
doesn't just speak to women. It speaks to anyone who's grown up and realized that life, no matter how successful and satisfying, is also inevitably tinged with compromise and disappointment. It's a message that I admit I didn't quite grasp (or didn't want to accept) when I saw the show at age 18. Now at 43, I get it in a totally visceral way.
I hope that, a decade or so from now, I'll be able to take my daughter (who at nine is currently too young for the show) to a production of The Heidi Chronicles
. It may not return to Broadway again that quickly but, wherever it plays, I expect it to be a formative experience for her---just like it was when my mom took me.
On Saturday, April 18, TDF is hosting a special reception and performance of The Heidi Chronicles to celebrate Wendy Wasserstein and raise funds for the arts education program she co-founded, Open Doors, which pairs groups of New York City middle and high school students with theatre and dance professionals to see shows and discuss their experiences. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.
Raven Snook is the associate editor of TDF Stages
Photos by Joan Marcus