The Heidi Chronicles — Image via guthrietheater.org

The Heidi Chronicles

Guthrie Theater
Directed by Leigh Silverman

Reviews of the Guthrie Theater’s current production of The Heidi Chronicles, directed by Leigh Silverman, are quick to characterize the title character (Kate Wetherhead) as flat, bland, and uninspiring — characterizations that I don’t find entirely fair or accurate. True, Heidi isn’t as glamorous or as outspoken as many of the friends who populate her world, but she is very human. She makes choices, some good and some bad; she attempts to be kind to others even when they don’t make it particularly easy to do so; and she works to eke out a meaningful life despite not feeling entirely at home in the values of either mainstream America or the ideological movements, feminist and otherwise, that she sometimes participates in. The play is ultimately about situating oneself in the world without betraying oneself in the process, and it raises questions that are, for me, the opposite of flat, bland, and uninspiring.

As we watch Heidi grow from mawkish teenager to college radical to feminist art historian, we see a woman emerge who has been deeply affected by the swift currents of change that characterize mid-century America, but we also see a woman who constantly reflects upon these changes and what they mean both personally and politically. Much has been made of the fact that, as an art historian, Heidi is, in her own words, “a highly informed spectator.” While this often gets interpreted to mean that Heidi is somehow watching her life unfold as opposed to living it, what these words really imply is that Heidi is a meticulous thinker. However, despite both her external accomplishments and her active inner life, Heidi is often made to feel that her own achievements are secondary to the allegedly more important events in the lives of others, such as Scoop (Ben Graney)’s wedding and his wife Lisa (Mo Perry)’s baby shower. Heidi’s feelings of inadequacy, however, say less about her and more about a society that celebrates certain achievements and discards or ignores others. (We see virtually no accolades when Heidi earns her doctorate or when her book of essays is published.)

The Heidi Chronicles — Image via guthrietheater.orgHeidi’s reserve and caution are rounded out in Silverman’s production by Heidi’s sometime lover, the caddishly charismatic Scoop, as well as her lifelong friends, Peter (Zach Schaffer) and Susan (Tracey Maloney). It is notable that although theses characters embrace life with more “gusto” than Heidi does, we are not meant to think that they are any happier or any wiser as a result. In fact, Susan compromises her principles to produce Hollywood films, and Scoop marries a woman he loves less than he loves Heidi because, even though he claims to be a radical, he does not want a wife with a fulltime career.

Given the colorful characters who orbit Heidi, some critics have asked why, in a feminist play, the protagonist herself is the least interesting character to be found. While I don’t agree with this assertion, I understand why it has been made. We tend to like our feminist heroines brandishing their power like a sword. We want them to be witty, irreverent, beautiful, perhaps even a little naughty. We want them to be the very superwomen that Heidi both mocks and feels shame for not living up to in her extended speech to her alma mater late in the play.

Heidi is none of the above. But she does decide what’s important to her and go about achieving it with as much integrity as she can. Sure, there’s plenty of fear, hesitation, weakness, and disillusion for her along the way, but this is how most real people experience their lives. I wouldn’t mind my daughter looking up to someone like Heidi, not least of all because she is so steadfast in her principles that there is hardly a character in the play who doesn’t comment upon the fact. Scoop tells her the first time they meet that she is “a true believer,” and we see this same consistency when Heidi refuses to help Susan develop a shallow sitcom about “empowered” women and also when Heidi attends a 1970s consciousness-raising session and is unwilling to assume immediate emotional intimacy with women she has just met. While some might read her behavior as frosty, I merely found it honest.

The Heidi Chronicles — Image via guthrietheater.orgSpeaking of the consciousness-raising session — which is by far the most painful scene in the play, given that it is basically a one dimensional caricature of different feminist “types” such as the harried housewife, the man-hating lesbian, and the naïve young thing in a bad relationship — the one positive thing this scene accomplishes is highlighting Heidi’s attempts to reconcile early feminism’s focus on collective action with the fact that she is a woman most at home in her own head. Although she is certainly in favor, as she tells Scoop, of every person, regardless of gender, being allowed to develop their full potential, we see that sometimes the ideology and rhetoric of a movement designed to encompass all (or at least most) women simply doesn’t provide her with a space to feel comfortable. We see this not only at the consciousness-raising session, but also during a protest against the The Art Institute of Chicago’s sexism, when Heidi’s friend Peter cannot join the protest because of his gender. In this moment, Heidi is forced to consider how the intricacies of real people’s lives are not always addressed by large-scale political movements. This doesn’t make her abandon her political passions; it just causes her to think harder about them. Wendy Wasserstein’s subtlety as playwright is at its best here. There’s no simple right vs. wrong to be had, just myriad complexities.

Wasserstein’s conviction that the personal and the political don’t always jibe, even when we want them to, is further evidenced by Heidi’s long on-again-off-again relationship with Scoop, a situation that she knows is objectionable (her “sisters” at the consciousness raising group tell her as much) but that she can’t quite seem to end because, again, principles don’t always allow for human weakness. In one of the strongest scenes of the play, the aforementioned speech at her girlhood school, Heidi again highlights how, in her personal life, she often fails to live up to her ideals. Despite having devoted her life to the study of women artists, Heidi vividly outlines her feelings of apathy, even acrimony, toward some of the women in her aerobics class. Feminism doesn’t mean liking all women all of the time, she allows us to conclude, and nor is it an emotional cure-all, we see by the fact that Heidi’s story ends with her leaving the gym before class has started because she is feeling “too sad to exercise.” For someone who thinks as deeply about the world and her place in it as Heidi does, sometimes inertia is the only possible response, and sometimes that has to be okay.

The Heidi Chronicles — Image via guthrietheater.orgThe fact that neither Heidi nor the audience can precisely pin down the exact cause of the melancholy she sometimes feels attests to the complexity of Wasserstein’s writing, Silverman’s direction, and Wetherhead’s acting. Perhaps Heidi is saddened by the fact that Scoop didn’t choose to marry her. Maybe she’s bummed that her feminist pals seems to be selling out one by one. Perhaps her perpetual outsider status is starting to wear on her, or maybe it’s the strain of being a highly cerebral person in a largely anti-intellectual society. Or maybe, as is the case with many baby-boomer feminists, Heidi laments the personal sacrifices she feels she’s had to make for her career. More likely, it’s a combination of all of these things, and this ambiguity makes for a play that is more about people than issues.

While The Heidi Chronicles is too multilayered to be about one thing, a question it does indirectly ask is the proverbial “can women have it all?” While the play doesn’t take a hard stance on this — Heidi obtains career success, financial stability, and motherhood, while her interpersonal relationships and personal happiness are a little rockier — it is both telling and a little depressing that the question is still very much with us today. While there might now be fewer Scoops filling out our ranks, men who purposely marry women who will be content to cook their dinners and have their children at the exclusion of a fulltime career, women are certainly still struggling to create and balance a life of work, love, and family. The question hasn’t gone anywhere, although perhaps there are more possible answers to it now than there were in 1988 when Wasserstein wrote the play.

The Heidi Chronicles is a sweet feminist bildungsroman and a nice snapshot of how the tumultuous decades of the 60s, 70s, and 80s affected one woman and her immediate circle of friends. Witnessing their lives intersect, implode, and get repeatedly remade is an enjoyable journey, and the lush sets and fun costumes of Clint Ramos and inspired music choices (we’ve been singing Paula Abdul for the past week at my house) make The Heidi Chronicles, which runs until October 26, both a thought-provoking and entertaining night of theater. If nothing else, it will remind you that, while feminism has never claimed to be all things to all women, the world is a better place because of it.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.