Maybe this is how it goes: One year your play is a cutting-edge treatment of the times, and you win a Pulitzer; the next, your creative masterwork is reduced to a cliché, with all the vital force of a moth pinned to a specimen board. That’s “The Heidi Chronicles” on display there, right next to “Rent.”
The Guthrie’s production of “Heidi” opened last weekend with loads of talent and craft, but not much insight. Wendy Wasserstein’s story about an art historian’s quarter-century journey of unfulfillment doesn’t have a lot of arc.
As the women around her pursue careers and relationships, Heidi lives a life of quiet alienation. Professional advancement? Check. Family? Check. Commercial success, intimacy, personal assertiveness? Check, check and check. Other characters show up mainly to illustrate choices that Heidi might have made, but didn’t.
Maybe when this play was new, in 1989, it was enough simply to name the choices that confronted women in the 1970s and ’80s. By now, though, these themes demand a little more. A superficial treatment risks coming across as anachronism – a risk heightened by the presence of other relics, like bell bottoms, a doctor who smokes and pregnant women who drink.
Under Leigh Silverman’s direction, thankfully, the Guthrie production rescues the play from what might have been a dirge.
At every turn, the show is smartly designed and acted. Kate Wetherhead delivers an appealing and personable Heidi. Tracey Maloney, Mo Perry and Stacia Rice are wonderful as the female population of Heidi’s world. Ben Graney and Zach Shaffer portray the men who complicate Heidi’s life – one a saint, the other a rogue, both of them out of bounds.
As designer of both sets and costumes, Clint Ramos evokes the period without going for cheap laughs – at least, not many of them.
Our own time has plenty of challenges to gender equality. If only Wasserstein were still around to write about them.