by Lynn on May 25, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Written by Wendy Wasserstein
Directed by Gregory Prest
Set and lighting by Ken MacKenziec
Costumes by Erika Connor
Composer and sound by Verne Good
Video design by Shannon Lea Doyle
Cast: Damien Atkins
Laura Condlln
Raquel Duffy
Michelle Monteith
Jordan Pettle
Paolo Santalucia
Sophia Walker
Sarah Wilson

A well intentioned, but initially rocky, production of Wendy Wasserstein’s celebrated, award-winning play that finds its footing in the second Act.

The Story. The play follows Heidi Holland when she was a shy teenager from Chicago in to Ivy League schools eventually earning a graduate degree in art history specializing in the art of women artists through the ages. The play begins in 1965 and zigzags back and forth through the 70s and 80s. We see Heidi’s shyness give way to strong feminism, trying to get her voice and concerns heard in a world that was deaf or managed by men. We follow her friendships with her women friends and her long-lasting relationships with two men, one is self-absorbed and consistently disappoints her and the other is gay and her soul-mate.

The Production. Gregory Prest is well intentioned in his direction of the play. The same boldness and sensitivity he brings to his acting, he also imbues in this early effort as a director. But sometimes you just want the director to trust the play and not try so hard to put his stamp on it.

In the fist scene, as per the stage directions, Prest uses a projection to indicate that it’s 1989. Prest also has a projection added to indicate that Heidi is forty. Fair enough. A group of well-dressed people stride forward to rock music and dance wildly for a bit and then leave so that the first scene proper begins. At this point Heidi Holland (Michelle Monteith) enters. She is dressed in a prim skirt and double-breasted blazer. (Kudos to Erika Connor for the costumes, especially for the scene when Heidi is a teenager. She wears a cardigan buttoned to the neck, the sleeves hang down over her hands. This says everything about this constricted, shy woman.) She is giving a lecture on women artists at Columbia University. There is a lectern on stage and a large screen hangs down on which she flashes the slides.

What then is that wild dancing scene about? Is Prest establishing the music of the time? Why? It’s not what the scene is about. As we learn later, Heidi has never felt comfortable in any context with dancing in a crowd. Why then is the music and dancing there to distract from the point of the lecture. By adding this Prest has stopped his production before it even begins.

While the date of the first scene is projected the dates of subsequent scenes are not, even though the text states them. For the rest of the production only Heidi’s age at that time is projected. I think that’s a mistake. It’s the date that is important rather than her age. Wasserstein is chronicling the heady times in which Heidi and her friends lived. The dates give context.

When Heidi gives her lecture on various women artists she is in control. She is talking about something she knows in her bones. It’s as if these artist who painted almost 200 years before are her friends. In this sense I found Michelle Monteith as Heidi a bit tentative and not quite comfortable yet. Heidi knows these artists intimately in a sense. She speaks about their style, the details in their work; the intention and meaning of it. At one point Heidi looks up at a slide and says “Hello girls.” It’s not a throwaway line. It’s a line of a woman who looks to these artists as people in her world, who have her interests, who are her true women friends who won’t leave her in the lurch when she needs help, who are an afterthought as she is. It’s a line of intimacy and playfulness. I hope that Monteith finds that intimacy as the run continues.

Monteith has a scene in Act II in which Heidi is giving a speech to students in her former school. In that speech she loses it. She is laid bare and is totally vulnerable. It’s a killer speech and Monteith nails it. She comes into her own in Act II. Heidi is lost, lonely, unsettled, and unhappy. Monteith illuminates all of this and finally contentment.

She is ably supported by Jordan Pettle as Scoop Rosenbaum, an egotistical, self-absorbed, supremely confident man who pushes Heidi’s buttons and has for their whole adult life. She has pined for him while he philanders elsewhere. But he is always in her life.

Also in her life is Peter Patrone, a gay paediatrician and Heidi’s soul-mate since they met years before. As Peter, Damien Atkins is dashing, watchful, perceptive and sensitive. These friends have been through good and bad times together and he knows her foibles better than anyone.

The rest of the cast is exemplary playing various friends through the decades, capturing the nuances and subtleties of behaviour, and in some cases showing their true superficial attitudes.

Better than anyone Wendy Wasserstein captured the attitudes and the tumultuous rise of feminism in her plays and she did it with humour, wit and understanding. The Heidi Chronicles is the best example of all this.

Comment. The gifted Wendy Wasserstein chronicles the feminist movement, friendship, relationships, loneliness, gay issues and finding ones way in a time of turmoil in The Heidi Chronicles and indeed in many of her plays. She writes with compassion, humour, sensitivity and perception. Wasserstein could get into the heart of sadness and loneliness and hide it with a smile. And wrote with compassion and perception about smarmy men and sensitive men and flaky women friends.

She died young (age 55) but left 11 plays, two screenplays, books of essays and a novel. We still want more. She was brilliant.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Opened: May 24, 2016.
Closes: June 18, 2016.
Cast: 8; 3 men, 5 women.
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

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