Our Review of MST’s ‘Heidi Chronicles’

4 Dec

Main Street Theater, through Dec. 19

By JOHN DeMERS

A few years before her unexpected death to lymphoma at age 55, playwright Wendy Wasserstein gave birth to a daughter – an act of love and hope for the future, and also a profound case of life imitating art. Shortly before the end of her Pulitzer Prize-winning play now showing at Main Street, the title character adopts a daughter in the waning days of the women’s movement that ravaged the ‘60s and ‘70s, expressing the hope that things will be just “a little bit better” for her than they were for previous generations of women.

That rather modest hope speaks volumes about the pilgrim’s progress of The Heidi Chronicles, a play that does a Forrest Gumpian job of capturing the highlights and lowlights of a quarter-century of American social history. And while the play’s sense of that big picture is accurate and absolute, it’s the very personal nature of Heidi’s story that makes it work onstage – even now that some parts of the tale seem outmoded while others, thanks to the sacrifices of women like these, are taken for granted.

Honestly, there’s virtually nothing you can say about the changing roles of women in modern life that isn’t echoed somewhere in The Heidi Chronicles; most issues, in fact, are attacked dead on. With plenty of humor, pathos and a proper dose of uncertainty, Wasserstein is able to portray the birth of today’s woman not as a sociology thesis but as an intensely human journey.

Cheryl L. Kaplan portrays Heidi Holland with conviction and a delightful lack of bombast. At no point in her portrayal does she seem particularly above it all, or “larger than life.” She hopes, she dreams, she struggles – she advances, then stops at regular intervals to wonder if she’s advancing at all. As was and is so often the case, her career (as an art historian specializing in women artists who were overlooked) seems a greater success than her personal life. She’s single when we say hello to her in high school in 1965, and she’s still single when we leave her to rock her baby on the brink of the 1990s.

Intimately woven into the story of why and how Heidi is single is the show’s most brilliant touch. For lo and behold, in a play “about” the women’s movement, it’s Heidi’s relationships with the two most important men in her life that drive a lot of the action and produce a lot of the deepest emotion.

Both men are archetypes done exceedingly well, though both dangle in the direction of cliché. Ever-cynical journalist Scoop Rosenbaum (perfectly embodied by Justin Doran) is the guy every woman falls for at least once: the tall, good-looking, witty and unapologetic cad. And pediatrician Peter Patrone is his bookend, another piece of many modern women’s lives: the smart, charming, compatible-to-hell-and-back guy that everybody thinks she should marry, except he’s gay. David Wald delivers what may be the production’s best, and definitely most endearing, performance as Peter, living through a liberation movement of his very own along the way.

The direction by Main Street executive artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden makes the most of Wasserstein’s lightning wit. Whether we’re watching Heidi in different forms of repartee with Scoop or Peter, or talking about life with her long series of women friends, or having a funny-heartbreaking near-breakdown during a talk about the status of women today, we never want for anything here. Entertainment is constant, as are ideas we can think about as much (or little) as we care to later.

As evoked in The Heidi Chronicles, the women’s movement suffers from the same interweavings of contradiction, exploitation and ambiguity as any other liberation movement throughout history. But no one walking out of Main Street Theater after the show can doubt for one second that Heidi’s hope for her daughter is well-founded.

Photos by Ric Ornel Productions: (top) the women’s protest march; (middle) David Wald and Cheryl L. Kaplan in high school; (bottom) Kaplan and Jen Lucy in LA in the the ’80s.

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