Recently, Girls Write Now had the opportunity to see The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway, written by groundbreaking feminist writer, thinker, and advocate Wendy Wasserstein. At a pivotal moment during the show, the title character articulates her feelings out loud:
“We’re all concerned, intelligent, good women. It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together.”
Though penned in 1988, Wendy’s words, with her trademark combination of sharp wit and deep conviction, still resonate deeply with Girls Write Now today. Wendy, who believed in mentoring the next generation of women writers and aligned with Girls Write Now, was profiled in Wendy and the Lost Boys, written by mentor Julie Salamon. Julie and her former mentee, Youth Board member Nishat Anjum (recently published in ELLE India!), and fellow Girls Write Now alum and Youth Board co-chair Natalia Vargas-Caba, reflected on this new production of The Heidi Chronicles, Wendy’s message, and how her voice has had an impact the next generation of feminist writers and thinkers.
Wendy was born in 1950 and lived through a crucial time of change and protest for women’s rights. How did the show’s reflection of that affect you?
- Julie Salamon: I found it very emotional. First, watching the play brought back the years I spent doing research about that period, talking to Wendy Wasserstein’s friends/families/associates, thinking about what’s changed and what hasn’t. And the experience of talking to people after Wendy and the Lost Boys was published, hearing their reactions. The play made me think about how we try to make our way through the world, balancing personal concerns with larger social and political issues.
- Nishat Anjum: The significance of the time period that Heidi was living through did not hit me until Scoop (Jason Biggs) said that Heidi would end up unhappy like many other women in her generation because that is the sacrifice that people who open doors make. I believe that it added a sort of “worthy cause” to Heidi’s life. She’s always been a quiet and reserved person, yet her belief in women’s rights adds a nice juxtaposition to her character—her fight to make the world a better place for women is loud. She yells in protests, talks to everyone and anyone about female artists, and even writes a successful novel. Yet in her personal life she’s more passive and chooses to observe the people around her rather than to engage.
- Natalia Vargas-Caba: In Heidi, I saw just how much progress has been made since those times that I’ll never have to experience. Aside from women’s rights, I saw the growth of feminism as inclusive: accepting men and homosexuals as part of the cause.
How is the show relevant today?
- JS: Very much so. I’ve always been struck by the moment in the play when Heidi’s old friend and flame Peter Patrone, referring to the classic Johanna Spyri novel Heidi, says to the play’s Heidi, who is now in her 30s: “Did you know that the first section is Heidi’s year of travel and learning, and the second
is Heidi uses what she knows. How will you use what you know, Heidi?” Well, that’s an enduring question, isn’t it? When we are young we think/hope/believe that one day the right path will become clear. And then you discover that clarity is elusive as the world shifts around you. Wasserstein wrote the play at a time when the Baby Boom generation—her generation—was approaching middle age. They’d lived through enormous social change—the struggle for women’s rights, gay liberation, AIDS, gentrification, the stratification of wealth, shifting gender classifications, the evolution of what we think of as “family.” And what do we see in the socio-political landscape today? The struggle to take back women’s rights, gay marriage being legitimized, gentrification, the stratification of wealth, shifting gender classifications…. So shouldn’t we all be asking that question: “How will you use what you know?”
- NA: I am a “Millennial”, born two generations after Heidi’s time. A few of the social and political references in the show may go over my head but the core message doesn’t. I think that anyone can find a piece of themselves in Heidi. She’s someone who’s a bit awkward and passive, yet she manages to create relationships that last a lifetime. She doesn’t really know what she wants, but she knows what she wants for the future. She fights for what she believes in and isn’t afraid to admit defeat when she’s lost. These are all human notions that everyone goes through. Not to mention there’s been a huge feminism revival in the last few years and the show often questions what it really means to be a woman—it could not have restarted at a better time.
The ad says, “You’ve Come a Long Way…Maybe.” Where do you think women are, today?
- JS: The details of the struggle may have changed in 25 years, but so much—sadly—remains the same. Throughout the world women are persecuted and dominated by patriarchal systems. In the U.S., women certainly have made advances in the professional fields. It is commonplace to see women doctors, lawyers, business people. But women’s rights—particularly reproductive rights—are under assault. Child care is still sorely lacking to make jobs more available to women. Women continue to be judged differently than men. There is much work to do. Still, when I meet young women today—including the wonderful mentees at Girls Write Now—I am so impressed with their self-confidence and ambition. They make me feel hopeful for the future.
- NA: From any viewpoint in history some women have had more of an advantage than others. What’s different today is social media. Social media is a double edged sword, but when used correctly it helps connect women, it’s brought more awareness to what goes on in places like India and Nigeria. I think that for awhile feminism (or the fight for women’s rights) had died down in the western countries because women had started to believe that they had equal rights. But now with this global awareness it is blatantly obvious how unbalanced the playing field is. Women today are definitely not in the best place they could be, but what really counts is that many are continuously challenging stereotypes and redefining gender roles.
- NVC: As for The Heidi Chronicles: “You’ve Come a Long Way…Maybe” I find the ad to accurately say how far we’ve actually come. Women can hold jobs these days, but we still aren’t paid equally. Women artists and writers are taken in more regard, but are still overshadowed by male colleagues. From Heidi’s day to ours, women have broken the wall as housewives and have more choices to choose our destinies, but with rape victim protests, pressure to limit abortion clinics, and denying the existence of the G-spot (for instance), we still have much to improve.
What did you think of this production of The Heidi Chronicles?
- JS: When I first began doing research in 2008 for Wendy and the Lost Boys (published in 2011), I set my Google Alert to Wendy Wasserstein. In the past six years I’ve been alerted to several productions of “The Heidi Chronicles” around the country. Inevitably, the question raised in the headline or first
paragraph is: “Is ‘Heidi’ still relevant?” The answer always depends on the quality of the production. Have the actors transcended the potential limitations of socio-pop references that could feel dated? Have they illuminated the play’s enduring questions about the tricky relationship between the political and the personal? Will audiences leave the theater feeling they’ve seen an interesting cultural artifact, or experienced a revelation—or a bit of both? So, to answer your question: I enjoyed every minute of the show. It was moving, thought-provoking, emotional and entertaining. Pam MacKinnon did a wonderful job of staging the show in a way that made it feel very alive and in the moment, even as time shifted. And the actors were just terrific. The role of Heidi is not easy. She’s a ruminative character, as much an observer of her life as a participant. But, if well played, her desires and disappointments, political and personal, can resonate deeply. Elisabeth Moss is just fantastic. Her nuanced performance was smart, funny, poignant. The entire cast was terrific, with a special shout-out to the amazing Bryce Pinkham as Heidi’s longtime friend. He managed to pull off scene-stealing bits without hogging the stage. It was a pleasure to watch these gifted performers bring Wasserstein’s show back to Broadway with such intelligence and grace.
- NA: I think that the best pieces of art are the ones that make you simultaneously inspired and introspective, and as a bonus, they make you laugh. The Heidi Chronicles certainly did all three. Elisabeth Moss was amazing, her acting perfectly balanced Peter’s satirical humor and Jason Biggs’s acerbic arrogance. The witty dialogues between characters are highly quotable, in fact I tried to commit a few of Peter’s lines to memory during the play. I’m awaiting the chance to ask someone if they are “having a sentimental spasm.” I also really liked the fact that the show took the time to emphasize the smaller details of Heidi’s life to bring forth the question of what it really means to be a woman in the modern world. And despite what many people might believe, that question has yet to be answered, which makes The Heidi Chronicles still extremely relevant.
- NVC: I found the show highly engaging and witty, which is a quality lacking in most modern plays. The change of scenery was seamless, and invites you to live between the 1950s-80s. All the actors were perfectly cast, and I would be mistaken if they weren’t truly their respective characters.