Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles,which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for Drama, still has a great deal of relevance today as it did when it was first produced. Though some progress has been made (the recent #metoo movement), it seems that 30 years later, women are still fighting the same battles – equality, sexual harassment, and equal pay. But the play is also flawed since it focuses on a particular group of elite women (and men) – white and successful.
The play spans three decades in the life of baby boomer Heidi Holland (Erin Klarner) and her friends in different locales (Chicago, New Hampshire, Michigan, and New York) and during a time that was crucial in the history of the women’s movement. We see Heidi maneuver the politically turbulent 1960s and 70s as a high school student, ivy league student and post grad; with her involvement in a women’s empowerment group; and as a success in the supposed “have it all” 80s among New York’s educated, liberal elite. The lead character has 13 costumes changes and there are 11 scene changes. Some of the actors play multiple roles. It is an ambitious undertaking and the hard-working cast and crew of The Salem Players, under the adept direction of Kate Leisner, can be proud of this solid production.
The structure of the play is series of flashbacks of Heidi’s life as a teenager up to her current situation as a 40-something, noted professor/author/art historian, specifically promoting women artists who have been ignored but were contemporaries of the great masters – all men.
“…the hard-working cast and crew of The Salem Players, under the adept direction of Kate Leisner, can be proud of this solid production.”
Heidi is a bit self-absorbed and it takes her forever to realize that her best friend who she met in high school, Peter Patrone (the marvelous Nick Chrone) who becomes a celebrated NYC pediatrician is gay. He has to hide his sexuality, fight some of the same battles as she does for equality, along with dealing with the loss of friends and children to AIDS. Heidi falls for the arrogant yet charismatic philanderer, Scoop Rosenbaum (played with great charm by Ja’min Williams) who keeps popping up throughout her life (the bad boy you can’t resist) – even during his marriage while creating his successful Boomer magazine. Heidi’s friend from high school, Susie (the wonderful Carisa Hatfield), has many transformations during the three decades, jumping from one thing to another, finally morphing into a successful, but superficial Hollywood show runner.
Kudos go to those in the actors who master multiple roles. Jen Sizer takes on a variety of small male characters but is a positive chameleon with the help of great makeup and costumes by Linda Ridge. Ridge does a great job capturing all the (sometimes wonderfully tacky) fashions of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Terri Laurino is fabulous as the “Martha Stewart” of the women’s support group, then as Molly, but most especially as April, the perky host of a morning show. Kateri Pelton perfectly captures two characters who are polar opposites – Fran, a radical, butch lesbian and Betsy, a privileged, pregnant friend of Scoop’s wife. Shannon Willing is wonderful as Lisa, Scoop’s southern wife. She breaks your heart as she tries to deal with emotions of pregnancy and the reality of her husband’s many infidelities. As her sister, Denise, Alayna Radner, is a pleaser and eventually becomes Susie assistant in Hollywood. Marleigh Toscano is sweet, but perhaps too soft-spoken as member of the woman’s group with an abusive boyfriend.
Heidi seems a bit naive and more of a detached observer at times during her life. She is not a gung ho, radical feminist but believes “all people deserve to fulfill their potential.” Erin Klarner’s performance as Heidi requires a lot of heavy lifting. Her strongest moment, both funny and ultimately sad, is when Heidi gives a speech to her fellow alumni, dispelling the assumption that she is among those who can do it all. She feels stranded and thought that women were all in this together. Instead, it seems more of a competition as she incites all the clichés of a super woman.
The other issue is that the play is long and does sometime drag a bit because of the many scene changes. This is likely due to Heidi’s many costumes (cheers to her dresser, Linda Ridge) and the different settings required. The set design and construction takes a village. The team includes Sholeh Mirzai, director Leisner, Paul Timmel, Tim VanSant and “Scoop.” They smartly use set pieces and moveable, multi-sided flats that can be dressed up quickly. The wait is also made easier with some great music from the different eras.
Unfortunately the author’s final conclusion is a favorite trope that can be found in the “romcom” films of the 80s. Baby Boom with Diane Keaton is a prime example (as well as the films of Norah Ephron, as enjoyable as they are). High-powered New Yorker inherits baby, meets her dream man (a handsome, single veterinarian) in a small New England town and launches a successful business. The same premise is still pushed today with the churning out of insipid, “romance novel” films found on a certain channel.
Despite all of Heidi’s successes, she is unhappy – until she adopts a baby with Peter’s help. The message then and now is that women can’t be truly fulfilled without a husband and/or baby. Despite that, this production has many laughs and poignant moments, with some great performances.
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Some adult language.
The Heidi Chronicles runs through October 27, 2019 at Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, 905 Frederick Road, Catonsville, MD 21228. For tickets call (410) 747-0720 or purchase online.