“The Heidi Chronicles” Gets a Well-Deserved Revival — But Have Things Really Changed for Women?

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Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

I had one question when seeing The Heidi Chronicles now getting its first Broadway revival:  Would this play about the women’s movement from the ’60s to the ’80s and the young women who pushed it seem dated? The answer is a qualified NO.  Unfortunately the issues facing women today are not very different from those of that period.  Some of us who lived through the period will find that depressing.  It may seem as though little progress has been on the core issues of respect, equal pay,  careers, options and just being taken seriously. Wendy Wasserstein’s 1989 Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play tells the story of a our heroine, Heidi Holland over 25 years,  from adolescence to nearly 40. Both acts open with Heidi lecturing in 1989 a class of college women about women in art history.  Spliced into her lecture are comments that draw her students’ and our attention to the fact that for centuries, women were not recognized as artists — in textbooks, exhibitions or museum collections.

Consciousness raising.  Photo by Joan Marcus
Consciousness raising. Photo by Joan Marcus

From there we go back to Chicago in 1965, when Heidi and her best friend, Susan, were uncertain teenagers attending a school dance.  We quickly see that Susan is confident and brave, eager to attract the attention of a young man.  Heidi, on the other hand, lags back and looks definitely uncomfortable.  When a young man asks her to dance she says she must stay with her friend, to Susan’s horror.  But she does meet Peter, who will become a lifelong friend. From there we move to New Hampshire in 1968 and the Eugene McCarthy campaign, where Heidi shows up to volunteer and meets another lifelong friend — Scoop — who is polished, confident, brash and a womanizer.  Yet, Heidi falls for him.  It is on to graduate school where Susan takes Heidi to a consciousness raising session — women who grew up in that period will remember these with either horror or fondness.  Again Heidi stays outside the circle — is it a lack of confidence or shyness?  Then stops in Chicago (a demonstration outside the Art Institute to protest the lack of women artists represented in the collection) and New York as the four friends pursue careers, graduate school, medical school, relationships and success.

Jason Biggs as Scoop.  Photo by Joan Marcus
Jason Biggs as Scoop. Photo by Joan Marcus

Act two finds Heidi attending weddings  (Scoop’s to a more traditional woman), baby showers, appearing on a TV interview show in which both Scoop and Peter upstage her and more.  She is now both lecturer and writer. Scoop is successful, married and unfaithful. Peter, a pediatrician, announces he is gay, and Susan determinedly changes professions and succeeds at everything. Heidi remain diffident and at times sad. Wasserstein has laced the play with great humor and has lovingly skewered the pretentiousness of youth and the seriousness of the women’s movement in that period.  We have the contrast of the two super confident figures — Susan and Scoop — that play off the uncertainty of both Heidi and, at the beginning, Peter. Elizabeth Moss (of Mad Men) plays Heidi as a little too diffident and unconfident. You wonder if she is seriously depressed; what would a little Prozac due?  At times she almost fades into the background but then again, Heidi is one who observes the world around her more than she participates in it.  She is the “listener”. But Moss shows us her passion about women artists. Bryce Pinkham, late of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, is Peter — the gentle, caring and dedicated friend and doctor.  His scene late in the play in the pediatrics ward is touching.

Bryce Pinkham as Peter. Photo by Joan Marcus
Bryce Pinkham as Peter. Photo by Joan Marcus

Jason Biggs, who has appeared in the American Pie films, captures Scoop’s confidence, swagger and arrogance and yet reveals the uncertainties and unhappiness that seems just below the surface. Ali Ahn is the confident Susan who adapts, re-invents herself and succeeds. But there is a desperate quality to her condolence (is it sham?) and need to achieve. Four other cast members — Andy Truschinski, Leighton Bryan, Tracee Chimo and Elsie Kibler — play a variety of roles and ages.  Each manages in a scene or two to show another part of the baby boom generation. Pam MacKinnon as director has connected the multiple scenes, locales and time periods in a way that we see the arc of Heidi’s life. John Lee Beatty has provided a flexible scenic design that also moves us easily through the years and Jessica Pabst’s costume capture the fashion trends without exaggeration.

Is The Heidi Chronicles a great play?  No, but it is a very good play even if some scenes feel as though they go on a little too long,  But that may be the fault of the director. Overall this is a very good production even if I wished Moss’s interpretation of Heidi wasn’t quite so passive. The Heidi Chronicles is at the Music Box Theater on W. 45th Street. Tickets are available at telecharge. Heidi Chronicles, The Music Box Theatre

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