My paternal grandmother Mary Anne Nuessle Gabler would have celebrated her 95th birthday this month. My father posted a memorial essay Abigail McCarthy wrote for Commonweal when my grandmother died in 1974, a year before I was born. Most of the essay is the kind of affectionate tribute one would expect in such circumstances, but at the end, McCarthy considers my grandmother’s life in the context of women’s changing roles.
“She was by very nature a helper, a nurturer. And, of course, that is what we are afraid of—that we will lose the Mary Annes, and with them the retreats from the struggle, the places of repose, the affirmation of our lives, the nurturing warm nests from which to go forth. We are afraid of a world of strident, contesting women with no time for the little comforting things.”
Abigail McCarthy’s then-husband looms large—literally—in the Guthrie Theater’s new production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. A huge poster depicting Eugene McCarthy hangs over an office of volunteers canvassing in support of the Minnesota senator’s upstart presidential candidacy, which demonstrated the depth of voters’ anti-war sentiment.
Among those volunteers is Heidi herself (Kate Wetherhead), an idealistic college student. At the campaign office, she’s seduced by an outrageously confident young journalist named Scoop (Ben Graney) who will become one of the most important people in her life—for better and for worse. Their relationship is one of two at the heart of the play, the other being Heidi’s friendship with high school pal Peter (Zach Shaffer) who at first seems to be a romantic rival, then comes out as gay.
The play is a kind of intimate historical pageant, following Heidi from a 1965 mixer—she was born in about 1950, the same year as the playwright—through the late 80s, when the play premiered. Almost as academic as its art-historian title character, The Heidi Chronicles makes a clear argument: that the women of Heidi’s—and Wasserstein’s—generation spent their young adulthoods frustratingly trapped by gender roles they were supposed to be in the process of transcending. They had their eyes on the prize, to borrow a phrase from the Civil Rights Movement that generation also witnessed, but it was never actually handed to them.
Baby Boomers are now becoming eligible for Medicare, and their daughters have reached the age span Heidi traverses onstage, struggling with many of the same questions. Staging The Heidi Chronicles in 2014 is an opportunity to ask what’s changed. The answer, of course, is both everything and nothing—and the play holds up because it sees its characters clearly enough to situate their choices in a historical context while not presenting them as determined by it.
That’s not, however, to say that the characters are the reasons to see this play. These characters are built to do what they need to do, and it’s hard to imagine them existing outside the world of Wasserstein’s sturdy scenes that pivot on pithy zingers. It’s appropriate that the play’s framing device is an illustrated lecture, because that’s essentially what the whole show is: a walk through three decades of social history with a cast of characters who certainly seem archetypal today, even if they didn’t at the twilight of the Reagan era.
Director Leigh Silverman, a recent Tony nominee (Violet) making her Guthrie debut, delivers a production that’s lucid but emotionally cool. In a sense that’s fitting for a script that reaches its peak of passion during a lecture to an alumni association, but despite potent subject matter, Silverman never really steers this show into the red zone. The three lead characters are meant to be wearing emotional masks, but the actors who play those characters wear their masks all too well in polished performances that slide by as easily as the elements of Clint Ramos’s dynamic set.
Where this creative team really excel is at seizing the opportunity to make the production a time-travel showpiece. Ramos’s set—a towering wall of books and cabinets that open to reveal different surprises with every scene—is a wonder, notable not only for its inventiveness but for its close attention to detail. (Notice the mirrored panels that open to reveal a wreath, or the fact that a Christmas tree exists only to be glimpsed by way of scene-setting as a door briefly opens.) The set’s so impressive that it threatens to upstage the actors, and sometimes does, as in a scene set in a sushi restaurant with a decorative dragon that would put Smaug to shame.
Ramos also designed the costumes, and it’s worth the ticket price just to see the several distinct looks he creates for the show’s many scenes. Consider the sophistication required here: it’s one thing to jump from 1965 to 1989, but it’s quite another to jump from 1980 to 1982, then to 1984 and then to 1986. Ramos shows impressive restraint in avoiding lazy, jokey cues and creating outfits that will make people who lived through this history remember that people actually did dress like they do onstage: it wasn’t all leisure suits and legwarmers.
The supporting cast revel in their juicy roles, most spectacularly during a scene set at a women’s “rap session” in the early 70s where Mo Perry’s tough-talking close-talker has a wonderfully absurd friendship with the prim character played by Stacia Rice. Perry also pulls off the incredible feat of turning the script’s broadest caricature—an indiscriminate Southern belle—into one of the show’s most nuanced characters.
While the themes of The Heidi Chronicles still resonate today—choices regarding career and family are still highly charged, and highly gendered—the play remains very much of its time and of Wasserstein’s generation. Heidi’s sense that things were different for women born even just a few years after her was validated by my aunt Betsy, who came to the show with me: she had the sense that her sisters ten years older than her, she told me, grew up in a very different world. Betsy went to high school in the era of Ms. magazine, whereas my aunt Edie, Betsy’s sister who was born a decade earlier, was already at the cusp of her teen years when The Feminine Mystique was published.
Abigail McCarthy’s essay speaks to the experience of the earlier generation—Betty Friedan’s generation. They were the daughters of the suffragettes who earned the right for American women to vote, and they saw a better, freer world for their own daughters—and their daughters’ daughters.
“Of course,” concludes McCarthy, “we who subscribe to the need for the movement, will hasten to say that the intent is to free us all to be wholly humane and affirming of each other. And we must remember that many a woman is driven to such desperation by her experience that she is unable to be either. We will have to work very hard to make the freedom to be wholly humane a reality. We owe it to Mary Anne…and all those like her.”
- Jay Gabler
photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Guthrie Theater