'Heidi Chronicles' Playwright Wendy Wasserstein

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wendy Wasserstein, 55, a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright who chronicled the triumphs and travails of modern American women, died Jan. 30 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater and Ms. Wasserstein's longtime friend, said the cause of death was lymphoma.

The best-known female playwright of her generation, Ms. Wasserstein was a wellspring of strong leading roles for women in "The Heidi Chronicles (1989) and "The Sisters Rosenweig" (1993), among others.

"It's where my imagination goes and sticks," she told The Washington Post in 1994. "Women's issues are still interesting enough to me to make me want to sit alone in a room and write." More than a decade later, she still was creating memorable female characters.

Her characters bear more than a passing resemblance to herself. They are feminist baby boomers, usually urban or suburban Jewish, seeking to have it all, even as they come to realize the futility of that desire.

Heidi Holland, the feminist art historian who is the main character in "The Heidi Chronicles," is typical. Tracing her life from youth to adulthood, the play mirrors the evolution of the women's movement from its heady 1960s adolescence through the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s to the myth of the "superwoman" of the 1980s.

"When I wrote 'Heidi,' I was 35, I had just written a movie for Spielberg that didn't work out, I wasn't married and I was beginning to feel like the odd man out at baby showers," Ms. Wasserstein told People magazine in 1995. "I didn't know whether the sacrifices I had made were worth the road I was taking. So I decided to write a play about all that."

"The Heidi Chronicles" won a Tony as best new play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama and virtually every major New York theater award.

Her next play, "The Sisters Rosenweig," was a serious comedy about three Brooklyn-born siblings who meet in London on a summer weekend to celebrate the 54th birthday of the eldest. The play holds out the hope that a loving relationship is a possibility, even for a smart, successful, twice-divorced woman.

The wit and snappy dialogue of her work occasionally evoked comparisons to playwright Neil Simon, although she aimed for more than comedy. She described her 1997 play, "An American Daughter," as "a serious play, but hopefully it has a texture of humor mixed with the sadness."

The play was inspired by news headlines, specifically the tribulations of Zoe Baird, a lawyer whose hiring of an illegal immigrant couple scuttled her nomination to be President Bill Clinton's attorney general. Ms. Wasserstein's character, Lyssa Dent Hughes, is a Georgetown physician, the privileged daughter of a Republican senator and the wife of a professor. Her nomination to be surgeon general goes awry when the media discover that she once failed to respond for jury duty.

Her final play was "Third," in which a college professor's well-ordered life is thrown into chaos when she accuses a male student of plagiarism. Dianne Wiest was featured in a Lincoln Center Theater production late last year.

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