With Emma Watson’s stirring United Nations speech as a public spark, 2014 seems to be a year in which feminism is making a welcome return amid a vital update and redefinition. The Guthrie adopts this view wholeheartedly with its staging of The Heidi Chronicles. Far from a relic of its 1980s milieu, this influential Wendy Wasserstein play is ripe for revival, an opinion shared on Broadway with its 2015 season giving rise to a revival starring “Mad Men”’s Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs from “Orange is the New Black.”
The Guthrie production stars Kate Wetherhead as Heidi Holland, an art historian swept along through the decades on tides of evolving social movements and difficult-to-navigate interpersonal relationships. Often following at the heels of her faddish best friend Susan (Tracey Maloney), Heidi finds herself in situations equally perplexing and challenging. She’s majorly influenced by the two most important men in her life—the arrogant and smug journalist Scoop Rosenbaum (Ben Graney) with whom she carries on a passionate but ultimately poisonous affair, and her cynical lifelong best friend Peter (Zach Shaffer).
The Guthrie’s take on this classic is artful and stylistically nostalgic, with an almost lyrical procession of decade-styled clothes, from Heidi’s do-wop years in high school to her mid-life crisis in the ’80s. The surrounding sets and characters morph along with the defining events of American history, from the edgy vibe of radical ’60s encounter groups to the bell-bottomed narcissism of the ’70s to the cosmopolitan materialism of the ’80s. Heidi is placed into these complicated scenes more as “a highly informed spectator,” in her own words, than an active participant.
As the years progress, Heidi becomes more frantic, more displaced, and eventually suffers the alienated solitude of a critical thinker surrounded by a world of total vapidity. The peak of the play depicts Heidi’s breaking point—she rants on and on in an unexpectedly emotional display—revealing surprising depth in a character who until this point had been too whiny and standoffish to garner much sympathy. It’s a long wait until this tipping point, with much of the rest of the play being driven by the antics of the other characters, and Heidi almost taking a back seat in her own story. But her righteous indignation and eventual determination to take life into her own hands is well worth the wait.
It’s a heady brew, but ultimately, The Heidi Chronicles is equal parts serious social commentary and humorous but biting realism. It begs the question: Where do we go from here? The resolution of the play sees Heidi making peace with her own life, and hopeful for her future. Heidi’s hard-earned empowerment comes, as always, at a time when women are looking for the next step in liberation, and Heidi’s story serves as a reminder to us that despite how far women have come through changing eras of radical thought and revolution, the story isn’t yet complete. We’re looking at a play that leaves us in the 80s, and begs us to ask, where are we now? And where do we go from here?