There may be a time when Wendy Wasserstein’s 1988 play “The Heidi Chronicles” fails to make an impression on audiences, when its messages about life’s choices and consequences, and how women and men may face them differently, will seem beyond passe. If so, that time would have to be after the human species has morphed into something else entirely.
Wasserstein, who died at 55 in 2006, deftly captured the way people think and behave. Though identified with the feminist movement, she opened windows into what drives men and women alike, what we convince ourselves we need, or can make do with, while trying to figure out what we truly, deeply want.
Those gifts are reaffirmed in the warm and knowing production of “The Heidi Chronicles” that has opened the 25th anniversary season of Rep Stage. Director Jenna Duncan never pushes the polemical, but keeps her focus firmly on the personal, drawing beautifully shaded performances from a close-knit cast.
A recent, short-lived Broadway revival of the play generated talk that Wasserstein’s best-known play had passed its sell-by date. Not a strong case, I’d say. There’s plenty of relevance left in the piece, and plenty of good old-fashioned theater.
Sure, some folks will always question why the central character, art historian Heidi Holland, ends up the way she does, especially relationship-wise. And how, despite giving lectures on neglected female artists (each act of the play opens with one) and participating in meetings and marches, she never quite meets the standards and expectations of all-out feminism.
But maybe Heidi just never got completely over feeling inadequate or out of step way back in her high school years, the years that continue to plague so many of us. Maybe that’s why each step of a career and a possible romance is invariably complicated for her.
And maybe that’s why Heidi remains such a compelling figure, one whose chronicles still contain an awful lot of what you might call teachable moments for adults.
Beth Hylton, one of the region’s finest actors, gives a persuasive and affecting portrayal of Heidi, a woman who frequently declares that “all people deserve to fulfill their potential,” but who doesn’t always embrace hers.
In the play’s famous Act 2 scene, Heidi faces a room of high school alumnae and moves from the assigned topic — “Women, Where Are We Going?” — into a stream-of-consciousness riff about encountering self-satisfied women at a gym. Hylton is wonderful in this funny-painful monologue, letting the weight of Heidi’s vulnerability and disillusionment sink in fully.
As Scoop Rosenbaum, the arrogant, but irresistible, man Heidi meets at a Eugene McCarthy rally in 1968, Rex Daugherty gives an incisive performance that gradually reveals the significant sliver of sincerity and doubt inside.
Rep Stage artistic director Joseph Ritsch does impressive work as Heidi’s wittily acerbic gay best friend, pediatrician Peter Patrone. In the scene that finds Peter more concerned about losing friends to HIV than tending to Heidi’s needs, Ritsch and Hylton interact tellingly; you feel the stings in this battle between two strong personalities, and the warmth when they find the will and grace to reclaim common ground.
There is assured, colorful work from the rest of the cast, notably Melissa Flaim as the sometime feminist Susan.
Scenic designer James Fouchard keeps things simple with an intimate staging in the round. Eric Abele’s costumes are period-evocative, though Heidi ends up looking rather matronly much of the time, which doesn’t strike quite the right note.
If you go
“The Heidi Chronicles” runs through Sept. 24 at the Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $15 to $40; $10 on Thursdays. Call 443-518-1500, or go to www.repstage.org.