I find myself returning to the New Theatre (in Newtown) due to its habitual staging of interesting, dare I say important, plays. Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles, about a sensitive woman’s efforts to find meaning in her life, is no different. Yet having watched this piece, I also find myself wondering whether Wasserstein manages to do what she sets out to.
The Heidi Chronicles follows Heidi Holland throughout the decades, from high school to middle age (1964 – 1989), charting the changing role of women (primarily through feminist sub-strands) in parallel. The play begins at the story’s temporal endpoint (1989) where Heidi is an accomplished art historian lecturing a group of students about forgotten yet important female painters from previous centuries. From here we flash back, then forward again, tracing Heidi and her friends through a dozen or so scenes, exploring love, sex, politics, careers and society’s idiosyncrasies towards women.
When it premiered in 1988, Wasserstein was hailed as a pioneer feminist playwright, who gave a voice to the disappointments that accomplished, well-educated women were reluctant to air. Unfortunately for us, this lingering melancholy about our place in the world remains all too relevant. To this end, the piece finds great pertinence in being honest about the movement. Whilst Feminism is unquestionably the most important thing to happen in the 20th century (after all, it’s half the human race!), the piece acknowledges the movement’s continued struggle to elevate (and embrace) varied individual experience, where instead, Feminism casts a feeble net around the idea of the collective. It is here that Heidi finds form and wit.
Nevertheless, the piece falters in presenting Heidi the person. Whilst it certainly lunges towards a wholesome portrayal, it refuses the jump at its conclusion. Heidi feels like a partial shadow, one we think we know (and could know) if it weren’t for the wall flower mentality written into the character. Undoubtedly, this is an issue with the writing. The play ‘sort of’ manages to juggle the two strands, right up until Heidi’s alumni speech (wonderfully performed by Lauren Dillon), but tapers off, rather sharply, leaving an unsatisfactory and slightly contrived ending. Perhaps if Wasserstein had let us see Heidi discover, through her changing relationships, the type of person (and feminist) she wanted to be, we may have been left satisfied, even inspired, by her individual experience (you do you).
Despite these concerns, director Alice Livingstone (and set designer David Marshall-Martin) present a confident, colourful production which utilizes the small space creatively and appropriately. Taking inspiration from last year’s Broadway revival, Livingstone projects background news slides and photographs onto the white walls, faithfully aiding the audience as to the decade and its corresponding concerns (Nixon, Kennedy’s Assassination, Civil Rights Movements, the Iranian Embassy siege, Reagan – just to name a few). The soundtrack is Wasserstein’s domain however, with a collection of script-specified pop songs that feature female artists from the time: Betty Everett, Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac and the fabulous Stevie Nicks. The design combinations work, and with some flashy retro costume design from Famke Visser, we are easily transported from decade to decade.
Livingstone also draws some good performances from her cast, where the only blanket criticism would be that the intellectual riffs occasionally got the better of them. Lauren Dillon presents a thoughtful Heidi, though at times appears to blend into the scenery. Nevertheless, Dillon impressively reconciles Heidi’s introversion with her quiet confidence, an essential, if not key, component to the character. Darren Sabadina shines as Heidi’s best friend Peter Patrone. He is quick, sarcastic, loyal and camp as a row of tents. Sabadina hit all the right emotional peaks (especially during his ‘coming out’ scene), but had a tendency to garble dialogue – the more lengthy punchlines in particular. Matthew Charleston worked well as Scoop Rosenbaum, a charming playboy that never quite gets away. One wishes however, that Charleston was just that bit more charming, enough to offset his arrogance. This might improve the conceit that Heidi continues to stick around (though perhaps his moments of sincerity did the trick). Caroline Levien makes a good fist of Susan Johnston, Heidi’s gal pal through the ages, and really comes into her own during Susan’s 80s powerhouse phase – superficial and never really present in conversation.
Of the supporting cast, Sarah Aubrey is by far the standout. Her chameleon-like ability to switch between Fran the militant lesbian feminist, April Lambert the spurious TV presenter, and a variety of other bit parts was impressive and seamless. Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame was particularly watchable as Jill, the apprehensive mother of four and Lisa Friedlander a ‘secure six’ and children’s books illustrator from the Deep South, whom Scoop eventually marries (despite being in love with Heidi, a ‘ten’). She penetrates the hesitation with which some women approach feminism, as it is unknown, and often less secure. Both Olivia O’Flynn and Benjamin Winckle round out the cast with their sound performances in the other varied roles (particularly O’Flynn as Debbie Friedlander, Lisa’s more successful though impressionable sister).
Many scenes hit hard, and you are guaranteed to hear a murmur of all-too-knowing outrage from female audience members, where in one scene, the men constantly speak over and for Heidi, only then to turn around and tell her that she should have talked more. Thankfully, she corrects them. Ultimately, The Heidi Chronicles still feels like it has something to say, and sends a message that regardless of their chosen path, women have a right to expect more from the world. That alone is enough to keep staging it (though we must continue to work through its ‘looser’ threads).
The Heidi Chronicles is playing at the New Theatre from 7 June to 9 July (Thursday – Sunday). For more information and tickets please visit http://newtheatre.org.au/season-2016/the-heidi-chronicles/.