- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2007

How many playwrights do you call by their first names?

Few theatergoers say, “We’re seeing one of Arthur’s tragedies tonight” when referring to Arthur Miller, or “That Jean Baptiste, what a card.”

Yet many people — especially women of a certain age — refer to the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein simply as “Wendy.”

She was our Wendy, smart and funny and kind, who knew what women in every stage of their lives were thinking and feeling and, most important, wrote about it.

Seeing Wendy’s plays is like meeting yourself in the footlights. They’re feminine and feminist without being exclusive. Like Jane Austen, Wendy focused on the white, well-educated and well-to-do, but their writings are generous and witty observations of human behavior that transcend societal constraints. With all her plays, you get the sense Wendy wanted to reach out and reassure people, especially women, that they’re not alone or walled in by their choices.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in her 1989 work “The Heidi Chronicles,” revived with a deft touch and edgy darkness at Arena Stage. Director Tazewell Thompson could have played this pointed comedy about women struggling with identity and compromise from the 1960s to the cusp of the 1990s as a gently mocking spoof of the clothes, music, social mores and slogans of the eras (although the zeitgeist of each decade is portrayed with pop-art pow in Donald Eastman’s geometric set, which features, dangling over the stage, a huge Rubik’s cube that projects ever-changing iconic images set to period music). It would have been very glib and funny, but it would have undercut the integrity and intensity of Miss Wasserstein’s message.

Instead, Mr. Thompson and an on-fire cast depict the various changes and stages in these women’s lives with conviction — especially the consciousness-raising and sisterhood movement of the 1970s — which gives the scenes power and clarity. There is abundant humor as well, but the comedy arises from pain and growth rather than period setting. “The Heidi Chronicles” reminds us of the importance of the feminist movement and asks us whether things are actually better for women today or if our subjugation is just different, more subtly ingrained.

The play takes us through 20-odd years in the life of Heidi Holland (played by Ellen Karas), a somewhat prissy and achingly earnest Ivy League-educated art historian who believes that all people deserve to live up to their potential. The trick question is whether she believes that about herself. The choices Heidi makes — to champion the art of forgotten female artists; not to suppress her ambitions to marry her longtime love, Scoop Rosenbaum (Marty Lodge); not to bend her ideals about art and people to fit in with the tenor of the times — impact those around her and society at large.

Heidi, with her prickly defensiveness and high principles, is not an easy woman to be around. Yet to know her, as embodied by an incandescent and absolute Miss Karas, is infinitely rewarding. She’s that kind of good, brave woman who makes you want to be a better person. You can’t say the same for Scoop, played with bad-boy glee by Mr. Lodge. He’s the kind of guy you want to go to hell with. On the other hand, Heidi is also fortunate to have a homosexual soul mate, Peter (Wynn Harmon, fey and ferociously smart), to serve as Noel Coward to her Gertrude Lawrence.

Heidi is surrounded throughout her life by interesting, overreaching women, notably her oldest friend, Susan (the excellent Catherine Weidner), who goes from a teen-ager rolling up her skirt to attract a boy at a high school dance to a feminist lawyer on a womyn’s collective in Montana to a high-powered Hollywood executive pitching sitcoms about quirky single women living in the big city. Susan Bennett, with her impeccable timing and bold presence, stands out whether she’s playing a bullhorn feminist named Fran, a canny magazine editor trying to have it all or a lesbian dancing the hora.

Arena’s “The Heidi Chronicles” is a warm and affectionate tribute to the late playwright, but what makes it memorable is the way the actors lace the lines with darkness; that sadness and sense of indignation that arises from realizing that being a good person is not enough to make life turn out the way it should.

***

WHAT: “The Heidi Chronicles” by Wendy Wasserstein

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 13.

TICKETS: $47 to $66

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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