Consider the difference between a woman struggling to make a difficult decision and one who appears never to decide at all. The results are similar: little happens. But for an audience, it’s the difference between engagement and distance. In the University of Vermont’s production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles, faculty director Peter Jack Tkatch doesn’t quite succeed in helping his cast locate their characters’ goals. Great theater is about articulating desire, but that doesn’t happen in this production. The play’s humor entertains, but we miss what the characters need and want. Wisecracks work best when we know the pain that drives the characters to make them.
First produced in 1988, The Heidi Chronicles follows Heidi Holland from 1965 to 1989 via 11 episodes designed to capture the changing zeitgeist. Heidi is the awkward-but-intelligent wallflower at a high school dance, watching her best friend hike up her skirt in boy-crazy enthusiasm; the slightly baffled object of a relentless flirtation conducted at a Eugene McCarthy for President rally; the uncertain observer of a consciousness-raising group in which women struggle to articulate female roles in society. And on we go. Her pattern is clear: Heidi watches and doesn’t quite commit.
On her way to a career as an art historian, she develops three longstanding friendships. While Heidi slowly tests the wind, best friend Susan rushes headlong into each new cultural fashion. From overdoing back-to-the-land in the ’70s to an equally exaggerated lust for power and money in the ’80s, Susan sputters in the margins like a flipbook of hyperbole. Why she remains Heidi’s best friend is a puzzler that probably can be answered only by a production that intensifies the personal warmth between the two women.
Sardonic Peter is unthreatened by Heidi’s intellectual merits, but the two still play out many of the eternal, stereotypic male-female dynamics. It may be a happy indicator of the steady progress we’ve made toward gay rights that Peter’s coming out is matter-of-fact, but the script surely intends this to land as the bombshell it was in 1974.
Finally, there’s Scoop, a relentless philanderer who manages to keep gliding in and out of Heidi’s love life. He’s rich and grows richer, and remains ever unfulfilled after multiple career successes and a fashionable marriage to a Southern belle.
Lida Benson portrays Heidi with unshakable composure, which gives the character the moral integrity that Wasserstein intended. Yet she and Tkatch miss demonstrating the agony of maintaining a thoughtful, humanist worldview in the face of opposing social forces. When she wonders if feminist solidarity has been exchanged for the get-rich-quick narcissism of the ’80s, Benson’s Heidi can’t convey much grief because she has never revealed what she needed feminism to do for her. And she attends Scoop’s wedding without any apparent need to show him, or herself, the mistake he’s making or the pain she feels.
Still, Benson has a magnetic presence and is wonderfully at home onstage. These qualities stand her in good stead as she makes her way through a play with a preference for abstract statements over personal exchanges.
Max Redman conveys Scoop’s cheerful side, though he doesn’t quite scale the height of the character’s celebrated charisma. The script poses an interesting likeability challenge, for Scoop’s endless skirt chasing can be considered either a harmless male entitlement or repugnant horndogging; Redman aims straight for the light side. Scoop’s first encounter with Heidi was written to showcase his towering self-confidence and need for sexual conquest. Instead, all we see is someone hurriedly launching bon mots and failing to notice if any of them land. Director Tkatch doesn’t push Redman to establish the character’s real needs, so, instead of a man with an unquenchable need to show off, he’s just a man showing off. Redman is stuck on the surface, leaning on his droll lines without revealing the inner spark that might have inspired them.
Kody Grassett displays a nice touch with Peter’s poise and cutting wit and shows intelligent restraint in portraying the character’s sexual orientation. It may be this production or simply the lens of the current day, but it’s difficult to detect the pain a gay man would have felt in the ’70s and ’80s. Grassett may not agonize much when coming out of the closet, or learning that a former lover has AIDS, but the script doesn’t give him a lot to work with, either. It’s tough to build an emotional pathway to the tragedy of AIDS when all you’re doing is gesturing offstage and mentioning the name of an unseen character. Pasting in AIDS here comes close to a sanctimonious bid for unearned sympathy.
As Susan, Ally Sass is a vivacious ball of fire as she follows Tkatch’s inclination to satirize the roles women tried to assume in the eras covered. Sass gamely overdoes a hormone-charged teenager and a Hollywood producer at a power lunch, but these exaggerated figures are objects of ridicule and therefore reveal nothing about the real pressure to behave in these ways.
Aidan Holding, Marykate Scanlon, Grace Trapnell and Emily Evans take on multiple supporting roles with good energy but are confined by the script and direction to superficial performances.
Wasserstein, who died in 2006, set out archetypal moments to illustrate cultural context, but the episodic nature of the play compresses the material into sitcom-grade brevity. Thus Peter’s grief is perilously shallow, while Scoop’s story seems limited to being born rich, toying with the meaning of idealism and sleeping around with impunity.
And what of Heidi? Sometimes it seems that the playwright created her to express her own smugness about never being ensnared by feminist militancy, unapologetic motherhood, dumb-blond-ism, etc. Yet Heidi remains sadly on the sidelines of life because she won’t deceive herself about “having it all” — a delusion that did indeed make many women attempt simultaneous moon shots for career, family, wealth, fulfillment and romance.
Making these choices is hard. And some degree of failure is inevitable, considering the impossible standards our culture promulgated for women (and still does). Wasserstein circles around this struggle for self-worth but ends up making Heidi more irresolute than insightful. And when she finally does make a choice, it’s one that makes women’s liberation look like the superficial indulgence many detractors claimed it to be. Perhaps Wasserstein could not imagine a radical choice for Heidi and so gave her a supremely predictable one.
The production quality of this show is excellent. Lighting design by student David Luongo bridges the gap between the stylization necessary for quick change and the atmospheric qualities that swiftly set a tone in each new scene. The rest of the production team is on the UVM faculty. Jeff Modereger’s set design uses the Royall Tyler Theatre’s three-quarter space as an almost clinical laboratory for observing Heidi. Well-chosen props and furniture add just enough texture to each scene. The costumes, designed by Martin Thaler, are generally pitch perfect, including some triumphant ’80s outfits.
It’s interesting to see if this play still works today. Tkatch emphasizes a humorous distance from events, which is certainly one way to look back. But we don’t want to know what happened; we want to know why. For that, actors must enter a scene needing something. In this production, the laughs come easy, but we still need to know where they come from.
"The Heidi Chronicles" by Wendy Wasserstein, directed by Peter Jack Tkatch, produced by the University of Vermont Department of Theatre. Thursday, February 21, through Saturday, February 23, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, February 24, at 2 p.m. at Royall Tyler Theatre, UVM, in Burlington. $15-18. Info, 656-2094.
The print version of this article was headlined "Feminist Flashback".