When The Heidi Chronicles was first produced on Broadway in 1989 (and won that year’s Best Play Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama), I and other feminist critics decried the play and its conservative messages about contemporary American feminism. But playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s death from lymphoma in 2006, at the young age of 55, prompted me to reconsider my angered response to the play. I wrote an essay about her work in the context of the shifting fortunes of American feminism and American feminist theatre criticism for Theatre Journal. And I was contracted by the University of Michigan Press shortly after to write a critical study of Wasserstein’s work that tries to parse what made her one of the few successful women playwrights to be produced regularly on Broadway and in the regional theatres. (I’m almost done writing that book . . .) My ambivalence about Wasserstein as a feminist icon persists, but my admiration for her particular brand of playwriting, and for her outspoken response to her anointment as an “exceptional” female artist on Broadway have grown as I’ve researched her and analyzed her work.
The Heidi Chronicles remains a complicated play, in part because it’s still one of the few to even attempt to tell the history of contemporary American feminism. (Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn comes to mind, but her play charts a different moment in American feminism through the experiences of a very different–though still white, upper-middle class–woman, who is also a professor.) Director Dan Sullivan’s original Broadway version of The Heidi Chronicles starred Joan Allen. Sullivan played up Wasserstein’s sharp and frequent jokes, and wound up belittling the very feminist movement the playwright was trying to parse while telling the story of Heidi’s life. This revival, paced more deliberately and played more for its drama than its comedy by director Pam MacKinnon, is thoughtful and smart, richly nuanced by Elizabeth Moss’s starring turn as Heidi. The production offers ample opportunity to reconsider what the play might mean to new generations of spectators.
The episodic play’s story ranges from the mid-60s to the late ‘80s. In 2015, the history Wasserstein narrates—from high school “mixers,” to Eugene McCarthy for president rallies, to feminist consciousness-raising groups, to Lennon’s assassination, to the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic—feels that much more remote from current political concerns. Contemporary feminist activists now tend to think intersectionally about race, ethnicity, and sexuality, and about multiple, rather than binary, gender positions. But as feminist historian Joan Scott insisted in a recent lecture at Princeton, American feminist activism of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s can’t be dismissed, given how it galvanized and inspired however partial a swathe of women at the time and after.
Written just as the backlash against that activism was filling the mass media, Wasserstein’s 1989 play appeared to lend credence to mainstream dismissals of feminist politics. Art history professor Heidi Holland frames her story at the top of the play’s two acts with wry lectures that illustrate the status of women artists in history. Her proto-feminist remarks are crafted to “rediscover” women artists once invisible in the canon of art history. By analogy, Heidi ruminates on her own life as a white upper-middle-class woman in contemporary American culture. But many critics read Heidi as glib and self-deprecating, and complain that Wasserstein couches her story in a tone that lets the character be easily dismissed. Feminist critics also critique the character as a cipher, a woman without depth or backbone who holds herself back from the history happening all around her and who insists on her “humanism” rather than embracing the nascent feminism she watches from a distance.
The Ann Arbor consciousness-raising group that Heidi and her friend attend in the play’s first act was a particularly painful scene for feminists to witness in 1989. The anti-essentialist academic feminist theorizing of the moment had roundly dismissed CR groups, alongside the media’s disdain for feminism in general. Those dual critiques made consciousness-raising easy to lampoon, since even feminist revisionist histories portrayed the groups as white women kvetching together, rather than acknowledging them as motivating, theory-inspiring occasions for political awakening.
But many feminist spectators (including myself) cried foul in outrage when, in The Heidi Chronicles, the CR groups’ members seem belittled in a scene that felt too cruelly satirical. Wasserstein’s scene gathers Fran, the “righteous” lesbian feminist who doesn’t shave her legs and wears an Army jacket; Jill, the suburban housewife transferring her selflessness from her family to the movement; and Becky, the beleaguered high school student in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend.
Heidi reluctantly attends the CR group meeting, dragged along by her fierce but mercurial best friend, Susan, whose affiliations and commitments change along with history throughout the play. In the CR scene, Heidi literally sits outside the circle. Although the others warn her not to judge them, Joan Allen played the scene in the original production with chilly antipathy for the proceedings. Her example urged the audience, too, to see themselves as superior to these silly, striving women.
The difference in MacKinnon’s production, and especially in Moss’s wonderful performance (for which she just received a Tony nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Play), is their conception of Heidi as essentially warm, strong, and thoughtful. Rather than blending into the scenery, apologizing for herself, or blandly refusing to participate, Moss’s Heidi works every moment she’s on stage to figure out what she thinks and where she stands (and there’s not a scene in the play that doesn’t include her). When she decides to makes common cause with the CR group women, for example, she’s deliberate and commits whole-heartedly. Even though the women might say “I love you” a bit too freely to everyone and anyone, MacKinnon and Moss and the other actors play the scene with affection and intelligence that honors the history instead of demeaning it.
Throughout the play, the production invites spectators to witness Heidi’s awakening to her own agency, and her gradual understanding that women of her generation were encouraged to let men make decisions and speak for them. When her old friend Peter hijacks a demonstration against the absence of women artists in a Chicago museum, Heidi has to explain feminist activism to him (and to the audience). When he comes out to her as a gay man in that scene, Moss registers Heidi’s disappointment and acceptance that their relationship will never be sexual. In all of her scenes with her occasional and always inappropriate boyfriend, Scoop, Moss lets us see Heidi’s realization that being with him works against her own interests as an independent person.
Given Moss’s precision, intelligence, and likability, the moments when the play lets Heidi down are more glaring. The climactic monologue in the second act, when Heidi returns to Miss Crane’s School, her alma mater, to deliver a speech called “Women, Where are We Going?” remains strident and maudlin and overly personal because that’s how it’s written. Moss works through the speech beat by beat to find its essential humanity and tries to make it land for a community rather than just for the character. That she’s unsuccessful, and that the monologue still sounds like an indictment of feminism, isn’t Moss’s fault (or MacKinnon’s).
Even in that difficult, selfish moment, Moss makes compelling Heidi’s struggle to figure out her life in relation to the people around her. That she’s surrounded by privileged women more concerned about where to buy the latest athletic apparel, a particular breed of New Yorkers who make her feel “worthless and superior” at the same time, constrains what Heidi (and Wasserstein) can say about the feminist movement. The speech appears to indict feminism, but if you hear it as accusing only Heidi, for comparing herself to exactly the wrong role models, it sounds differently. The moment is about the character, but the problem is that it’s always read as about the movement.
When a play like The Heidi Chronicles was and remains the only one on Broadway telling even a partial, personal history of American feminism, the character and the playwright bear the burden of representation. Before she died, Wasserstein urged people not to saddle her with such responsibility, and argued forcefully and rightly that there should be more plays about women and feminism, so that she could tell her story without the impossible necessity that it represent all women’s stories.
Perhaps Wasserstein’s most cynical gesture was to use the character of Heidi’s erstwhile best friend, Susan (Ali Ahn), to represent options for certain kinds of feminists. Susan shifts lightning fast from being a radical feminist “shepherdess” on a feminist “dude” ranch in Montana to editor of the law review at Yale to an MBA-powered television producer trying to cash in on stories about quirky and powerful women. Ahn nails Susan’s shifts in tone, style, and costume, in a performance that’s broad without succumbing to parody. Casting an Asian-American woman as Susan also could be seen as addressing the charge that feminism in this period was only for white women. But Susan is written as shallow and self-serving from the start, making Heidi’s expectations for their friendship peculiarly misplaced. It’s really Susan who leaves Heidi stranded without an empathetic female friend to give her the reality check she so desires. Not feminism.
With Susan reduced to offering Heidi air kisses before she chases after celebrities in a restaurant, Heidi turns to the men in her life for support. Peter Patrone is the stalwart, sarcastic gay pediatrician, beautifully played with humor and steely knowingness by Bryce Pinkham. Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs, well cast and on target) is the snarky, straight, know-it-all operator Heidi first meets at a rally for Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire in 1968.
Her encounters with these two very different men—Scoop indicted but admired for his patriarchal ambitions and adulterous predilections, and Peter ennobled by working with infants with HIV/AIDS—become determining for Heidi. She’s attracted to Scoop even though she knows he’s a shit, and she adores Peter even though he demands she accept that his life is more important and tragic than hers. Neither can really see her, but Heidi has nowhere else to turn in Wasserstein’s cosmology.
The play’s other women characters are caricatures. Lisa (Leighton Bryan), Scoop’s southern belle wife, is a gifted children’s book illustrator but is used narratively only as the butt of Scoop’s infidelity. Denise (Elise Kibler), Lisa’s sister, learns about feminism in her women’s studies courses at Brown and has carefully planned her life so that she can “have it all.” April (Tracee Chimo), the superficial, power-mongering television host, facilitates a conversation on her vapid morning show, “Hello, New York,” between Scoop, Heidi, and Peter in which the men speak over Heidi and publicly silence her. Fran, the fuzzy lesbian physicist at the Ann Arbor CR group, is fleshed out in this production by the brilliant Tracee Chimo’s loving portrayal, but remains famous for her declaration that “either you shave your legs or you don’t,” a rather reductive mantra for feminism, even in the early ‘70s. Given these choices, to whom might Heidi turn for empathy, experience, and insight?
Moss is a strong, emotionally acute actor who brings humor and strength to Heidi’s plight. The character laughs with instead of at the others, and what the script offers as self-deprecating, apologetic humor, Moss reinterprets as smart, if kind of kooky, lightheartedness. In other words, her Heidi is in control of herself and her emotions, and can laugh at herself even as she feels her way through the rough patches. You see her struggling to find her place among each of the groups in which Wasserstein places her. She’s angry at the end of the “Hello, New York” taping; ecstatic when she embraces the Ann Arbor CR group; and indignant on Lisa’s behalf when she tells the women at Lisa’s baby shower that she saw Scoop in Central Park with his mistress at the rally mourning the assassinated John Lennon. Moss gives Heidi spine, intelligence, and emotional depth, which makes her a much more compelling guide through the history Wasserstein sketches.
John Lee Beatty’s terrific set uses a stage revolve and blank white walls on which to project snippets of history as it passes through the play. Critics over the years, David Savran chief among them, have noted how Wasserstein superficially telegraphs history through her choice of song lyrics, played under the top of each scene to mark the narrative’s march through time. In MacKinnon’s production, however, the walls bear projections of newspaper headlines from significant moments, as well as television-shaped photos of American presidents, advertisements, and other redolent cultural images that play more schematically than literally, and better help the music situate the story in history. (Peter Nigrini’s projection design and Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design beautifully execute these conceptual choices.) The design respects the story and, at this remove, does better justice to history than the original did in 1989.
The great theatre historian Oscar Brockett always encouraged us to ask, “Why this play now?” as the central dramaturgical question for any production. I’m not sure I can answer that question about why The Heidi Chronicles should have been revived on Broadway in Spring 2015. The much-touted, critically acclaimed production closes May 3, after only 80 performances. Yet as Lisa Kron insisted in a New York Times article April 22nd about the production’s imminent closing, we don’t ask whether David Mamet’s plays remain relevant when they close quickly on Broadway. This production of Heidi, for whatever reason, didn’t take. The high ticket prices, perhaps? The fact that the current generation of young feminists might not know the play or the playwright, or care about its issues, as Chloe Angyal of feministing.com suggested in the same Times article? Because of its pat solutions and privileged women’s plight? Hard to say.
Or perhaps the marketing campaign didn’t help. The publicity featured its star cast, posed against an empty white background, with Moss wearing a sexy red dress in the front of Pinkham and Biggs, would be enough to entice people to see the play. The advertisements and posters didn’t give audiences any insight into the play’s content or style. You’d never know it was a comedy, let alone about 30 years of American history, including feminism. Even the large political-style buttons handed out in the theatre’s lobby are cryptic. Against a bright pink background (of all things), the buttons proclaim, “I am ‘Heidi’” #HeidiOnBroadway. This in itself demonstrates the limited way in which the producers (or at least the marketing team) saw the potential audience: As only white upper-middle class women who would identify not just with but as Heidi? How unimaginative.
There’s a beautiful moment at the end of the hospital scene, the penultimate in the play, when Heidi decides she’ll postpone the year of teaching she’d planned to accept in the mid-West and stay with Peter in New York. He’s confessed his grief over losing his friends to AIDS and his anger that Heidi would abandon him when he needs her. Although her choice to stay could still be seen as another of Heidi’s self-sacrifices, Moss plays the decision as borne of her love for her oldest friend.
She and Peter embrace at the scene’s end, and Heidi cups his face in her hands to peer gently into his eyes with a gaze full of fondness. As the stage lights dim and the scene transition starts, you can see Moss repeat the gesture in the dark, as an actor expressing affection for her scene partner. I don’t know if the moment was planned or spontaneous, but it struck me that this is what makes the difference in this production. Moss appears to love Heidi, as well as the other characters and the actors who play them. Hers is a big-hearted performance, and that affection and intelligent feeling suffuses the play with new meanings. I, for one, found those new meanings very welcome.
The play still ends with Heidi ensconced in her “raw space,” entertaining Peter and introducing him to her adopted Panamanian baby while he confesses his plan to run for a seat in the Senate. Heidi still wistfully prophesizes that their children will experience the gender equality that remains out of their parents’ reach. In other words, the play’s conclusion remains unsatisfying from a feminist perspective.
But MacKinnon’s production and its terrific cast make the play worth reconsidering. See it this week if you can (discount tickets are available on line and at the TKTS booth in Times Square) and join the debate. Better yet, mount the play at your college or university or regional theatre and see what your students or local audiences think about its representations of feminism. Use it to start and continue a really important discussion about where we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going, and who we are.
The Feminist Spectator
The Heidi Chronicles, on Broadway, directed by Pam MacKinnon, written by Wendy Wasserstein, through May 3, 2015.