The Heidi Chronicles


The late, great Wendy Wasserstein's seminal work, The Heidi Chronicles, was something of a revelation when it debuted off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1989, and once it transferred to Broadway, the play won the Tony Award for Best Play. Through the experiences of Heidi Holland (Elisabeth Moss), an art historian coming of age in the 60s, Wasserstein explored one view of the feminist movement, and where its progenitors ended up. (Through a series of vignettes, we see Heidi as an adolescent in 1965, and then check in with her over the years, all the way through 1989.)

Seeing how relevant this is—how little has changed—is somewhat disappointing. Maybe it's not fair to say nothing has changed. Maybe a lot has, and what hasn't is simply amplified because of changes in technology. There are still institutional blockades against women, and women are still stigmatized for their choices (when the old, wrinkly men who write laws let them have a choice). Yet it would be disingenuous to look at where Heidi was and where we are now and suggest things are still the same. Perhaps it's more accurate to observe that while institutions and governments have made changes (some more significant and lasting than others), people—and the relationships they have—have not.

The feminist revolution and struggle is analyzed through Heidi's relationships. We see throughout the Pam MacKinnon*-directed revival how her relationships with female friends (many of whom are played by the unparalleled Tracee Chimo (Bad Jews)) evolve and change her; we see how her relationship with a lifelong male friend (Peter, played by a spectacular Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman's Guide...)) evolves and changes her; and we see how her relationship with an old flame (Scoop, a smarmy and not-charming-enough Jason Biggs (Boy's Life, Orange is the New Black)) evolves and changes her. Looking at the relationships with the luxury of hindsight and as an objective party, we see that, on the aggregate, people don't change. Relationships, whether between friends or between lovers, are always going to be this way. The good relationships, the ones worth fighting for, are always going to be messy.

Hopefully what we walk away realizing is what Heidi realizes while giving a speech to a new generation of women after being asked to look back on what her own generation had achieved. (It's in this scene that Moss (The West Wing, Mad Men) truly delivers.) Heidi begins her speech by apologizing for not having a prepared speech. She projects the audiences' rationalization for forgiving her, saying they forgive her because they figure she must have had a super woman's kind of day yesterday: full day of work, exercise class, shuttling the kids around, making a five-star meal, attending to her husband, finishing a chapter in her novel...

Except that's not what happened, Heidi says, chiding the audience for being so quick to forgive. Yes, Heidi does have a job. Yes, Heidi did attempt to go to an exercise class. Yet Heidi is unmarried. She does not have children. She does not have all these obligations. Instead, she finished work, went to the gym and then broke down in the locker room as she compared herself to the other women. And in that moment, Heidi describes, she realized that the power to change—or to choose not to change—is within herself.

She does not need to allow these women to be the sole judges of her value. She does not need to let anyone—another woman, a beau, a boss—appraise her. Her worth is tied up in how much she values herself. That's a place of self-actualization that so many of us don't even know to strive for.

(The circumstances of Heidi's locker room story and her relationships with women throughout the play should not be glossed over, though. Rather, it would behoove us to observe these interactions sharply, and stop touting all female relationships as better and more benevolent than any relationship a woman might have with a man. Female friendships can be just as damaging and debilitating as amorous relationships between men and women. (Read my screed against Frances Ha for more.) Let's not look to satisfy the superficial Bechdel test and think all female relationships are created equal.)

A question comes up early in the play; one woman wonders, "What do mothers teach their sons that they never tell their daughters?" It's a provocative question, one that Heidi is left to wrestle with as the play concludes. We hope that Heidi and all mothers raise their daughters the way Mindy Kaling says she was raised "with the entitlement of a tall, blond, white man." So while Wasserstein's play isn't as revolutionary as it was in the late 80s, it's just a important today.

*It's worth noting, while we're talking about women and their accomplishments, that Pam MacKinnon is one of the few female directors to have won a Tony for directing. She and Diane Paulus both won Tonys in 2013, MacKinnon for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Paulus for Pippin.

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