Rep showcases Wasserstein’s enduring voice

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Local productions of her work by The New Jewish Theatre and The Repertory Theatre have made it abundantly clear just how serious a loss to the American stage was the untimely death last year of Wendy Wasserstein, whose Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles is on the Mainstage of The Rep through Mar. 4. Featuring a powerful and poignant portrayal of Heidi Holland by Effie Johnson, who is supported by an outstanding cast, splendidly directed by Michael Evan Haney, Wasserstein’s play movingly portrays the formative and mature years of its title character, a brilliant, feisty Jewish art historian against the backdrop of the convulsive changes for American women and society in general from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Wonderfully, Wasserstein’s crackling wit permeates every scene in the life story of its main character, and her long-term interactions with her two closest male friends, Peter Patrone (James Clow), who Heidi meets in the introverts corner at a dreadful high school dance in 1965, who later becomes a brilliant physician who “comes out” as gay, and Scoop Rosenbaum (Andy Paris in a stunning, appropriately manic, egotistical interpretation of the role), who meets Heidi at Gene McCarthy headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1968. Scoop and Heidi “meet cute” at the McCarthy campaign headquarters, but an obvious chemistry between them is clear from their first conversation in which they match wits and compare values.

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Rosenbaum is the editor, at the outset of the play, of an underground counter-cultural newspaper called The Liberated Earth News. Asked by Heidi if he is “a real-life radical,” Scoop replies, “You mean, do I make bombs in my parents’ West Hartford apartment basement? ….How could I be a radical? I played lacrosse at Exeter and I’m a Jew whose first name is Scoop. You’re not very good at nuance. And you’re too eager to categorize. I’m a journalist. I’m just here to have a look around.”

As Scoop and Heidi size each other up, their intitial competitiveness ignites their mutual attraction and they quickly become physically intimate in the fashion of the 1960s, beginning a decades-long challenging relationship in which Scoop strings Heidi along while he feeds his insatiable lust with other available women. Later, Scoop would “sell out” and found a highly successful, slick magazine called Boomer, earning a fortune, but spurning numerous opportunities to form a truly committed relationship with Heidi or anyone else, including his shallow wife, Lisa (Annie Fitzpatrick).

Heidi Holland, who seems to have much in common with Wendy Wasserstein herself, is a brilliant art historian, who like the real-life Judy Chicago, laments the neglected place of the great women artists in academic curricula and in museum presentations. She is seen at the outset conducting a slide show of truly outstanding examples of great women artists, whose works have been largely ignored by art histor-rians and neglected by mainstream museums. Throughout the play, as in other works by Wasserstein, such as The Sisters Rosenzweig which led off the New Jewish Theatre’s current season, the playwright’s commitment to writing what Andre Bishop in Playwright’s Horizons calls “plays of ideas” comes through, without in any way distracting the audience from becoming involved with the characters. Effie Johnson portrays Heidi Holland with just the right balance between soft vulnerability of the shy young woman we meet at the 1965 high school dance, to the feisty art critic and militant feminist of her professional years, and the loyal and caring friend to Scoop Rosenbaum, Peter Patrone and her women friends, Susan Johnston (Polly Lee), Jill/Debbi/ Lisa (Annie Fitzpatrick), and others.

While much of The Heidi Chronicles deals with events specific to past decades, such as the reactions to the murder of John Lennon, the script never seems “dated” or re-cycled nostalgia. The period background music by Janis Joplin, the Beatles and others enhance the scene changes, and the supple direction by Michael Evan Haney moves along at a brisk pace even as it covers several decades in two longish acts. Wasserstein’s death last year after a long battle against cancer, promted three local theater companies to present “The Windy City” retrospective of three of her most memorable works. The NJT was first with its season opener, an excellent production of The Sisters Rosenzweig, followed by The Rep’s terrific production of The Heidi Chronicles. The Orange Girls production company will round out the trio with its production of An American Daughter at COCA July 13-29.

(The Heidi Chronicles completes its run at The Rep on Mar. 4. For information, call 3l4-968-4925, or visit the Web site at www.repstl.org. An American Daughter will be presented by The Orange Girls at COCA July 12-29. For information call 3l4-520-9557, or visit the Web site www.orangegirls.org.)