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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Heidi Chronicles

Also see Susan's report on the 2007 Helen Hayes Awards and her review of The Musical of Musicals: The Musical

The Heidi Chronicles
Peter Patrone and Ellen Karas
Almost 20 years after its premiere, Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles seems more a time capsule of its own era than a work that still speaks to the present. The entertaining production now at Arena Stage in Washington, crisply directed by Tazewell Thompson, does serve an important purpose: teaching younger audiences, specifically women, about the effort that went into gaining the rights they now take for granted.

The central character, Heidi Holland (Ellen Karas), is an intelligent woman trying to make a difference as an art history professor focusing specifically on women painters, most of whom were unknown to the general public until the late 20th century. Heidi grows and progresses from 1965, when she is an awkward adolescent at a high school dance, to the late 1980s. Along the way, she encounters student activism, women's consciousness raising, gay rights and the question of what compromises may be necessary for a happy and satisfying life.

Karas ably inhabits her character's frustrations as a woman who finds something to believe in, then gets frustrated when other people don't go along with it leading to a memorable meltdown. As another character says, she's "a serious good person" and "the true believer who didn't understand that all this is just a phase."

To set Heidi in greater relief, Wasserstein has given her a lifelong best friend, Susan Johnston. Catherine Weidner does the best she can with a character whose purpose seems to be that she encapsulates every choice Heidi did not make, from clerking for a Supreme Court justice in Washington, to raising sheep on a women's commune in Montana, then to a business degree and eminence in Hollywood.

The actors playing the two men in Heidi's life give performances as good as Karas', and they are well matched: Marty Lodge as Scoop Rosenbaum, hotshot journalist and a man who, while he cares about Heidi, chooses to marry a woman whose ego doesn't threaten his; and Wynn Harmon as Peter Patrone, a clever, witty pediatrician who is also gay. Lodge gives Scoop enough surface charm that he seems ultimately pitiful rather than hateful, and Harmon conveys both the character's insouciance and a growing fury that eventually has to break out.

Wasserstein sums up the rest of Heidi's world in broad strokes, including a 1960s women's group with a lost, abused young woman, a rebellious homemaker, and a hilariously militant lesbian; Scoop's steel-magnolia wife and her younger sister, who sees only the financial rewards in the feminist struggle; and an airheaded talk show host in a sunshine yellow suit and matching heels.

Donald Eastman's scenic design does a lot with a little, primarily using different kinds of chairs to denote different settings. Merrily Murray-Walsh captures the excesses of several eras in her costumes, from Heidi's 1968 trapeze dress with Mondrian-style blocks of color to the exaggerated shoulder pads of the 1980s women's suits and Scoop's burgundy jacket and vest.

A series of projections designed by Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White sets each scene in a concrete historical context while also introducing the audience to examples of women's art through the years.

Arena Stage
The Heidi Chronicles
April 6th May 13th
By Wendy Wasserstein
Heidi Holland: Ellen Karas
Susan Johnston: Catherine Weidner
Chris/Mark/Ray/Ensemble: David Covington
Peter Patrone: Wynn Harmon
Scoop Rosenbaum: Marty Lodge
Lisa/Jill/Ensemble: Hope Lambert
Fran/April/Ensemble: Susan Bennett
Denise/Becky/Ensemble: Emerie Snyder
Directed by Tazewell Thompson
Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage, Sixth and Maine avenues S.W.
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


Photo: Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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