'The Heidi Chronicles': Remembering Wendy

Tazewell Thompson, director of Arena Stage's
Tazewell Thompson, director of Arena Stage's "The Heidi Chronicles," lived near the play's author, the late Wendy Wasserstein. (Photos By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 6, 2007

Tazewell Thompson misses playwright Wendy Wasserstein terribly. "We used to live about 4 1/2 blocks from each other," says Thompson, the new artistic director of Westport (Conn.) Country Playhouse.

"Wendy was always so full of joy and optimism and encouragement," Thompson says. "I never heard a discouraging word from her, ever. . . . I just took it for granted that I would run into her and she would always be there."

Wasserstein died early last year at 55 of lymphoma, leaving behind a stunning -- Thompson calls it revolutionary -- body of feminist work.

Thompson, 54, has been a fixture at Arena Stage for years, first working with its co-founding artistic director Zelda Fichandler. Now he's back, directing "The Heidi Chronicles," Wasserstein's look at the shifting landscape women have negotiated the past few decades.

More than a bit of Wasserstein survives in her plays, particularly "The Heidi Chronicles," which Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith calls Wasserstein's story, as it predicted the very choices the rising playwright would struggle with: independence, career, relationships and motherhood.

"Heidi" dates from 1988 and was among Wasserstein's early successes, following her big 1977 breakthrough, "Uncommon Women and Others," a piquant homage to a tightknit group of college women on the cusp of maturity and feminist consciousness.

As for "The Heidi Chronicles," Smith says, "I wanted to produce a play that I knew would speak to a new generation of young women growing up."

Smith, 55, and Wasserstein developed a friendship when Smith directed her charged political treatise, "An American Daughter," four years ago at Arena. "Even though she wrote with a comedic vein," Smith says, "she had a very dark view of women and of where we are at any given time. I think there's often not a lot of recognition of that in her work." But funny and sweet and sensitive and generous and down-to-earth are the attributes Smith and Thompson remember and cherish.

"I was very frustrated with God because I didn't understand why He's taking the funny ones," Smith says. "Then I realized that there is probably a need for humor up in heaven. I can imagine her with a whole group of people, talking the way that she talked, telling great stories, in that warm, bighearted, generous way that she had."

Smith says that when "The Heidi Chronicles" came out, "many women were speaking out in living rooms about what Wendy wrote about. Women were asking: 'Is it possible to really have it all? What was the promise of the early feminist movement? Would we be able to attain what we thought we could attain?' "

Wasserstein, Smith says, whittled the existential feminist questions down to: "What do you want in your life? How do you want to live your life? What's important to you, and what are the values you have?"

Smith adds, "These are big-picture ideas, and Wendy spoke for generations of women."

Thompson agrees. "I think women still have that struggle today," he says. "They may have choices, but they look back and question whether they should leave their children in the care of others to fulfill themselves completely, not just with motherhood but through work."

"The Heidi Chronicles," which opened off-Broadway in 1988, revolves around Heidi Holland (Ellen Karas), tracing her evolution from a hesitant teenager to her coming-of-age and finally arriving at a turning point as a feminist art historian. Along the way, Holland, in many ways a stand-in for Wasserstein, makes lifelong friends in the turbulent 1960s while experiencing political and social upheavals that toppled the status quo. From the influence of feminists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to Cosmo's "Sex and the Single Girl" creator Helen Gurley Brown and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, Wasserstein plotted Heidi on an expansive course through the 1960s, '70 and '80s.

"I think [Wendy] is everywoman, and 'The Heidi Chronicles' is a real example of that everywoman," Smith says. "We know our writers best through their writing, and this is how we'll know Wendy."

The Heidi Chronicles Arena Stage 202-488-3300 Through May 13

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