If you judged by the 2015 revival on Broadway, the late Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play “The Heidi Chronicles” must be passe.
The short-lived production lasted only 80 performances despite the cachet of “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss in the cast. The poor showing prompted post-mortems suggesting that a work hailed as a pioneering feminist play after bowing on Broadway in 1989 — it ran for more than 600 performances back then — has lost its relevance.
Rep Stage begs to differ.
The Columbia-based professional theater company opens its 25th anniversary season Friday with “The Heidi Chronicles,” which follows the life of the fictional Heidi Holland from awkward high schooler in the 1960s to respected art historian in the 1980s. Heidi’s journey through personal relationships and the women’s movement gives the play its fuel; Wasserstein’s celebrated gift for comic writing generates extra kick along the way.
Jenna Duncan, who is directing the Rep Stage production, considers the play as fresh as ever.
“If anything, it’s ahead of its time, rather than dated,” Duncan says. “I’m struck by how contemporary the dialogue feels.”
Rep Stage artistic director Joseph Ritsch likewise finds more than a period piece in “The Heidi Chronicles.”
“It’s not just a history play,” says Ritsch, who is performing the role of Heidi’s gay best friend in the production. “It serves as a way to to see if we’ve progressed, or how far we’ve progressed, since the ’80s.”
Ritsch chose to program the piece after joining Beth Hylton, a member of Everyman’s Theatre’s resident company, for a reading of “The Heidi Chronicles” presented as part of series at Everyman focusing on female playwrights in the spring of 2016.
“Beth and I were both surprised by how enthusiastic the response of the audience was,” Ritsch says. “That made me think that the play was just the right fit for the season.”
He engaged Hylton for the Rep Stage production to portray Heidi.
“I fell immediately in love with Wendy Wasserstein’s writing,” Hylton says. “It’s so good that even the [supporting] characters have interesting back stories. All the women in this play are real.”
That reality is something that Duncan has sought to underline in this staging.
“I’m drawn to the entry point of people, rather than the grand political statements in the play,” Duncan says. “Wendy Wasserstein tackles the complexity of being a human being. We know that’s true of writers like Shakespeare, [Arthur] Miller and [August] Wilson, but before directing this play, I didn’t know she was in that group.”
For this production, the usual Rep Stage venue — the Studio Theatre at the Horowitz Center at Howard Community College — has been configured in the round, with seating for about 100.
“Another reason I chose the play is because it’s really intimate,” Ritsch says. “To me, the Broadway revival felt very lost in its space [an 860-seat theater].”
However presented, “The Heidi Chronicles” strikes chords that continue to resonate since Wasserstein wrote the play nearly three decades ago, and since her death from lymphoma in 2006 at the age of 55.
Women are still not always taken seriously in traditionally male-dominated fields. They can still face tough balancing acts between career and family. Or they can face men reluctant to consider marrying a woman whose intellect — as a character in the play tells Heidi — would be too much competition.
The work opens a window into “how we fight our personal battles, and how we can get blindsided or get tunnel-vision,” Duncan says.
Ultimately, the play’s message is, “go out and finish the fight,” Hylton says.
Some theatergoers may find that the feminism in “The Heidi Chronicles” takes on a new edge in light of the 2016 presidential election.
“I’m not sure there is any way not to view it through that lens,” Duncan says. “Think of the scene where Heidi is the on a TV show and doesn’t get a word in because men keep interrupting.”
For Ritsch, the matchup between Republican and eventual winner Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton revealed how some things don’t seem to change when it comes to judging men and women.
“There were always excuses for him, never for her,” Ritsch says. “She could not get a break for anything.”
One aspect of the woman’s movement that is considered in “The Heidi Chronicles” is the notion of having it all — marriage, children, job. That notion still comes up for debate.
“The whole question suggests societal pressure,” Duncan says. “It eliminates the possibility of an excuse. You can be made to feel there’s something wrong with you.”
The director and cast members of the Rep Stage production have found themselves discussing all of these things and more during the rehearsal process and they found their own connections to Wasserstein’s world.
“I know this is a history play,” Hylton says, “but it feels very alive to me.”
“It’s possible,” she says, “that ‘The Heidi Chronicles’ is at its prime age right now.”
If you go
“The Heidi Chronicles” opens Friday (there is a preview performance on Thursday) and 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 repstage.org.