Kicking of this week's lovefest for the great gifts of the 1980s begins with Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles –winner of the (wait for it) 1989 Pulitzer, Tony, New York Drama Critics' Circle and Drama Desk prizes for best play.
The Heidi Chronicles premiered in a 1988 off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizon. The play was staged for 99 performances there, before moving to Broadway–and 622 more performances. Joan Allen starred as Heidi Holland through it all.
Why all the hype? Because this play is so crazy good. It's a thoughtful, slippery, and witty story of Heidi . We meet her first as an art historian in New York City, but we move back in time, following her coming of age from 1965 onwards–we join her in feeling consumed by how to merge idealism with individualism. From the radical politics and faith in community from the sixties and seventies, Heidi watches incredulously at how her generation moves to middle-age materialism. She's bewildered by and envious of her those around her, even as she loves them deeply. With the sweep of years, geography (scenes are in Chicago, Ann Arbor, New Hampshire, and New York), and art (slides of paintings make frequent appearances). Heidi's story takes an epic scope.
The play is punctuated by time and place: Heidi's art history lecture on female painters, and their historical neglect opens both acts; it rhymes with the scenes of Heidi as a young woman awakening to feminism–both its revelations and its absurdities–and her contemporary hunger for community. One of Heidi's friends and old flames–Scoop Rosenbaum–she first meets in 1968 at a Eugene McCarthy for President dance. Rosenbaum grows up to edit a high-class magazine for his generation called "Boomer." He's a charismatic and controlling idealist who she's alternatively close to and odds with through her life. Susan is Heidi's best friend as a young woman who goes on to work in television; she tries to recruit Heidi into becoming a consultant to a sitcom. Meanwhile, especially dear to Heidi's heart is Peter Patrone. She's known him since he was a teenager; he grows up to be a wealthy gay pediatrician who is tormented by watching the devastation of AIDS around him.
… "The Heidi Chronicles" was an
episodic, seriocomic biography of an art historian seeking to establish
a fixed and fulfilling sense of identity amid the social convolutions
of the 1960's and 70's, a period when the rulebook on relationships
between men and women was being rewritten. Heidi's allegiance to her
ideals and her unwillingness to compromise them for the sake of winning
a man's attentions caused conflict with friends who chose easier or
different paths. Looking around at her materialistic, married,
self-obsessed peers two decades after the exhilarating birth of
feminism, Heidi observes: "We're all concerned, intelligent, good
women. It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point
was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was that we
were all in this together."
The voices ring in my mind, after several reads of this play since last
summer; the dialogue is remarkably honest, funny, and just plain old
interesting. Rarely have I come across stories and plays where the
human instincts to demarcate characters with sharp lines ("she's the
funny one,"he's the misunderstood one") is so futile as here; the
characters' many-sidedness is made plain on every page.
And the last scene of The Heidi Chronicles never fails to devastate me. In the best of ways.
Wendy Wasserstein was a native of Brooklyn, and wrote, among many other things, the plays Uncommon Women and Others (her graduate thesis at Yale's drama school) Isn't it Romantic? and The Sisters Rosensweig.
Again from The New York Times:
Although it was always laced with comedy, her work was also imbued with
an abiding sadness, a cleareyed understanding that independence can
beget loneliness, that rigorous ideals and raised consciousnesses are
not always good company at the dinner table. But she shared her
compassion among a wide array of characters, those who settled and
those who continued to search.
She died in 2006 of lymphoma, leaving behind her daughter Lucy, who she gave birth to in 1999 and had been raising herself. Wasserstein was 55-years-old when she died.
Thank god for those 55 years. And thank you to the late-eighties, for offering up this enduring play.