Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 25
 
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
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Music/Theater

BABY BOOMERS: It’s 1982 in the TV studio for the trendy talk show “Hello, New York,” featuring art historian Heidi Holland (Rebecca Foresman), prominent New York pediatrician Dr. Peter Patrone (left, Tyler Weaks), and Scoop Rosenbaum (right, Shawn Fennell), editor of the influential Boomer magazine.

Women of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby?” “Heidi Chronicles,” PST Opening, Highlights Baby Boomer Angst

Donald Gilpin

The Heidi Chronicles, 1989 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, is Wendy Wasserstein’s depiction of young Heidi Holland’s life from 1965 to 1989, as she charts Heidi’s tumultuous, troubled, often hilarious course through the early decades of the women’s movement. Heidi struggles to combine her career as an art historian and her personal life, as her chronicles take the audience on a baby boomer nostalgia trip rich in allusions, both musical — “The Shoop Shoop Song,” Janis Joplin, “White Rabbit,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” — and historical — Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Tricia Nixon, John Lennon, Ronald Reagan.

From a 1965 high school dance to a 1968 campaign party for Eugene McCarthy to a 1970 feminist consciousness-raising encounter group to a 1974 protest on behalf of “Women in Art!” — the scenes, twelve altogether, gradually become less fraught with drama and politics but more distressing, as Heidi and her baby boomer friends face the complexities of growing up and making difficult choices with families and careers. There’s the awkward baby shower for the unhappy wife of Heidi’s womanizing ex-boyfriend; a cheesy TV talk show featuring Heidi, who can barely manage to get in a single word between her two baby boomer male counterparts; a flurry of compromises and career-ism amongst Heidi’s acquaintances and Heidi’s 1986 speech to an alumnae gathering in which she admits her disillusionment, “I feel stranded … I thought the point was that we were all in this together.”

Finally, in 1989, the last scene reveals Heidi in a barren apartment, the adoptive single mother of a baby girl. Neither Ms. Wasserstein nor Heidi seems to have found answers to the difficult questions that this play and Heidi’s life raise — about women balancing careers and families, about finding fulfillment in the world of gender politics and crass commercialism that constitutes American society, but through her baby daughter Heidi looks hopefully to the next century: “a heroine for the twenty-first!”

Ms. Wasserstein’s voice here, resonating most prominently through her protagonist, is rich in wit and humor, stinging in its social satire, but also self-mocking and highly self-conscious. Occasionally the witty repartee, which is mostly on a par with that of Noel Coward or Neil Simon, becomes excessively contrived, but the dialogue is sharp and entertaining.

Heidi, who at the opening prologue to both acts is at the podium at Columbia University delivering art lectures, describes the female figures in two particular paintings: “What strikes me is that both ladies seem slightly removed from the occasion at hand. They appear to watch closely and ease the way for the others to join in. I suppose it’s really not unlike being an art historian. In other words, being neither the painter nor the casual observer, but a highly informed spectator.” These ladies are not unlike Heidi herself, or the playwright, or many other smart, well educated, conflicted women of that generation. Ms. Wasserstein’s thorough commitment to this engaging, sympathetic character raises the stakes significantly here, gives this comedy a certain gravitas, and lifts The Heidi Chronicles above the level of facile social commentary or mere sit-com-style entertainment.

Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” runs June 24-27, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, in the Hamilton Murray Theater. Call (609) 258-7062 for tickets and information.

The Princeton Summer Theater company, under the direction of English professor-playwright-director R.N. Sandberg, delivers the serious and the comical content with style and intelligence. The ensemble of five women and three men, all but one Princeton University undergraduates or recent graduates and all children of the baby boomer generation they are depicting, render these characters with rich detail and credibility. These experienced actors have shrewdly observed their parents’ generation and also tapped into the powerful universality of these characters and their struggles toward finding meaning and fulfillment in a world often hostile to their hopes and dreams.

Rebecca Foresman as Heidi presents a heart-warming, at times heart-wrenching, protagonist of this production. Always clear, compelling and in character, Ms. Foresman reveals so many different sides to this brilliant, clever, conflicted character, whether she’s fending off advances from Scoop, her long-time, completely unreliable romantic interest, lecturing to her students, asserting herself and her beliefs as strongly as she knows how, or awkwardly struggling to figure out why and where and how she can fit in with the other members of her lonely generation of independent women.

Shawn Fennell creates a suitably overpowering Scoop Rosenbaum, relentlessly arrogant, articulate, and witty. In the early scenes he is a young lawyer, then later the rich successful publisher of Boomer magazine — and the kind of charming, unfaithful boyfriend who only exacerbates all of Heidi’s inner conflicts and self-doubts.

Tyler Weaks’ scintillating Dr. Peter Patrone, prominent pediatrician and the only other significant man in Heidi’s life, becomes her most important confidant. As a gay man, however, with his own difficulties in putting together his career and his personal life in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, he cannot alleviate the loneliness nor provide the romantic fulfillment Heidi seeks. Mr. Fennell and Mr. Weaks both create rich, three-dimensional characters.

Dominique Salerno, as Heidi’s practical, aggressive friend Susan presents a memorable character foil. Veronica Siverd is funny, dynamic, and impressively versatile in five different supporting roles. Heather May effectively renders the roles of an older feminist, then the hapless pregnant wife of Scoop, while Olivia Stoker and Daniel Rattner also convincingly bring to life a cluster of different supporting characters.

PST production designer and technical director Allen Grimm, a professional with experience at Washington DC’s Arena Stage, Theater J, and many regional companies, has, along with Ms. May, designed a simple, striking and highly functional set. The only set pieces are a table and chairs and a podium for Heidi’s lectures on the far stage right. The names of places and dates corresponding to each of the dozen scenes are all part of the set, posted on the flats at stage left and right on stage and lit up at the appropriate times to highlight the changing settings. “Keep the faith!” is inscribed upstage center, and all adheres to a black, white and red color motif.

The Heidi Chronicles, in this sterling production, holds up well over the more than two decades since it first appeared in Seattle, then on Broadway, for a successful run as Ms. Wasserstein’s most popular play. There are occasional creaks in the plot when the play shows its age, and the second act does drag out a bit before bringing Heidi to her ultimate bittersweet resolution.

The Heidi Chronicles, however, is a fascinating period piece, providing, through the eyes of Heidi Holland, a poignant view of a pivotal period in American history and women’s history in particular. What has happened to women of Heidi’s generation since 1989, not to mention the lives of the following generation of young women, could supply more than enough rich material for a fascinating sequel. How sad that Ms. Wasserstein, who died of lymphoma in 2006 at the age of 55, is no longer with us to write it.

The sold-out opening performance of The Heidi Chronicles set a high standard for the upcoming Princeton Summer Theater season, which features three more challenging productions: The Turn of the Screw, based on Henry James’ story, over the first two weekends in July, followed by George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance in late July and Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa in August. These talented young PST performers have already created an aura of considerable excitement at the Murray Dodge Theater, and the company’s high energy, consistently strong commitment, and first-rate production values bode well for a triumphant summer season.

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