The Heidi Chronicles
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has unwrapped a wryly comic production of Wendy Wasserstein's rich but problem-filled script, The Heidi Chronicles. The play is very like a musical in its episodic, gangling structure, and for all that Art, especially painting, and even more especially the role of women painters in Art, that is Wasserstein's controlling metaphor, the relationships that constitute the fabric of the story are quite dance-like, and are choreographed both visually and emotionally with a distinctly musical kind of logic.
It's not quite written into the script that all the characters except the protagonist are cartoons, but director Michael Evan Haney has decided to read the play that way, and the idea is wonderfully underscored by Martha Hally's brighter-than-life costumes as well as by the breadth of the well-sorted cast's speech and movement.
Against this exaggerated background, Effie Johnson underplays the peripatetic Heidi almost to the point of tedium, making the contrast between the thoughtful protagonist and her often unpleasantly thoughtless friends even sharper. It becomes clear finally that the point we are to get is that Miss Johnson is acting on the most rarified of levels, at which she is supposed to appear to be Not Acting, and indeed the snippets of lecture with which both acts open are quite realistic in their treatment and effect. More powerfully, in the play's climactic confrontation with her most appealing friend in the next-to-last scene, she does achieve a kind of verisimilitude, in which her emotionally charged, halting speech and hesitant movement both accurately mirror human behavior and create powerful drama – not, as any viewer of reality TV can attest, a common phenomenon. Unfortunately, by the time Miss Johnson's technique has worked its magic on us, the evening is almost over.
It's all the viewer can do, at times, to avoid heckling Heidi Holland. Splendidly gifted, a lucid and compelling lecturer, certainly far from unattractive, she has a dream job in academia and her ragtag posse of friends, male and female, are never far away. But she is depressed, frustrated, and unable to sustain a relationship with a lover. As we walk with her through twenty-five years of American cultural history, which she observes accurately but seems unable (or unwilling) to see herself as part of, we find ourselves (often) wanting to yell "Get on with it!," or words to that effect. Passive-aggressive depressives do have their battles to fight, but they don't do well as heroines.
James Clow deserves special acclaim for his work in bringing the best out of the character of a rather stereotypical gay doctor, and Polly Lee is effective as Heidi's sometime-lesbian friend Susan. It's well to remember that the play is nearly twenty years old, and what seem now like clichés were then only recently possible at all.
A quick survey of friends indicates that I am not alone in remembering almost nothing about the Rep's previous production of The Heidi Chronicles, suggesting that it is the kind of play one experiences rather than thinks about. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but when such a play (or production of a play) is not totally absorbing, it can leave the audience frustrated.
The Heidi Chronicles will run through March 4 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis; the box office number is 314-968-4925.