Even successful plays get retired from the workforce after a few seasons. A select few, however, may go on to a new phase of wizened seniority. That is the case with The Heidi Chronicles, now getting an entertaining new look by the Equity actors of Rep Stage at Howard Community College.
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein basically founded her career on this serio-comic trip through the feminist manifesto, circa 1965 to the late 1980s. It debuted on Broadway in 1989, where it took home the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The era is chronicled through the experiences of Heidi Holland, an oft-caustic, wide-eyed academic. With her we watch Wasserstein’s female characters trek from awkward socializing to women’s groups and bull-horn activism. Meanwhile, Heidi all but disappears through the looking glass of identity politics.
As an art history major at college she realizes that all her classroom texts harbor little love for the fine painters of her own gender. What fault in the stars could account for the modern world’s failure to pay equal attention to the equal work of that off-campus sorority?
From today’s perspective, that war has pretty much been decided in Heidi’s favor. It comes as no revelation to playgoers that the dominant culture gets to become the arbiter of values — from here to antiquity.
After becoming a college art teacher, Heidi dresses down the male-blinded art world with her daily lectures. But that’s as close as she gets to activism herself. Heidi’s private chronicles are more personal than political, and her relationships with men boil down to two major non-starters, one with a gay man and the other with a glib, undiluted narcissist.
Director Jenna Duncan has selected a terrifically natural group of actors to define Wasserstein’s cast of contemporaries. However, none of them get much help from the open space configuration given Rep’s flexible Studio Theatre.
With just a sparse array of undefined blocks and abstract forms, Scenic Designer James Fouchard plants Heidi’s world in something like the chilly halls of a modern art museum. The actors are forced to roam around on that empty center stage all evening in search of human warmth. That may be fine symbolically but it undercuts the play’s moments of sincere intimacy.
The acoustics of that basic “black box” performing space also pose a challenge here. In Heidi’s important opening discourse on art, too many of the painters’ names fly by in a stream of mushy, indecipherable syllables.
Once the flashback scenes begin, Beth Hylton recovers nicely as Heidi Holland. Hylton keeps the character alternating between bewilderment and judgmentalism while projecting the proper mix of innocent self-delusion and rabid self-mockery. It’s a human and fully engaging performance.
Multi-talented Joseph W. Ritsch could not be any more relaxed and authoritative as Peter. The actor makes some very bold choices early on as Heidi’s gay confidante and postmaster general of delicious sarcasm. Those choices all pay off in the touchingly heartfelt closing scenes as he confronts the toll taken on friends by AIDS.
Rex Daugherty exacts more than a pound of flesh from the thankless role of Scoop, Heidi’s other longtime male friend. Beginning as a cocky, self-styled campus undergrounder and not-so-secret sexist, Daugherty shows us how glib self-confidence and a need to control can easily transition into bourgeois elitism and bouquets of marital infidelity.
Providing the variety of sweet or salty supporting female players along the way are Madeline Rose Burrows, Hallie Cooper, Alina Collins Maldonado, and Melissa Flaim. Newcomer Anderson Wells also shows his versatility as a number of small, indelible male characters.
The changing decades are adequately suggested by Costume Designer Eric Abele, with help from Sarah O’Halloran’s sound design with its period tunes. Adam Mendelson manages to define some of the shifts in Heidi’s unfolding chronicles with his lighting design.
While not much of the messaging in The Heidi Chronicles is especially tweet-worthy today, the ground it covers is still relevant. It is an entertaining reminder that the search for self-identity and personal fulfillment did not begin with the Internet.
Running Time: About two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Heidi Chronicles plays at Rep Stage through September 24, 2017 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, or call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.