Reviewed by Ellen Becker
With “corporate” feminism the likes of Lean In, Thrive or #GIRLBOSS dominating the femscape, the answer to the age-old question “can women have it all?” is answered with a fierce YES!, that so often papers over the concomitant concerns of balancing a successful career with a happy home. Wendy Wasserstein’s 1989 play The Heidi Chronicles, now playing at New Theatre, Newtown, once seemed so revolutionary for attempting to explore that conundrum. At the time it gave voice to the concerns of a generation of women – so much so that Wasserstein won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. But when the long-awaited revival on Broadway closed early last year despite good reviews, one had to ask whether Wasserstein’s play was ever actually universal.
Wasserstein based much of the play on her own experience, chronicling key moments in Heidi’s life from high-school to middle age. Always bright but seldom aware, Heidi (played by Lauren Dillon) is a passive observer for much of the play. Having her consciousness raised when she attends a women’s network with her best friend Susan (Caroline Levien), she aligns herself with the camaraderie and ideals of women’s lib. But despite her better judgement, she keeps up a toxic relationship with Scoop (Mathew Charleston), a precocious journalist she met at a McCarthy Mixer who strings Heidi along but can’t bear to marry someone with such ambition. Heidi becomes a tenured professor and respected art historian, but feels that the choice of one “fat purple fig,” as Sylvia Plath would describe it, made all the other figs - like a husband and family - “wrinkle and go black.”
Lauren Dillon handles Heidi’s evolution from innocent and impressionable to wise and disillusioned with convincing charm. Costume designer Famke Visser charts Heidi’s time travel with subtle pieces – that veer into the cliché only when appropriate to do so, such as Susan’s dressed-for-success leopard print garb in a pivotal scene. As Heidi’s gay best friend Peter, Darren Sabadina exudes wit and charm, lightening the moments that Heidi’s indecision wears thin. Director Alice Livingstone makes great use of the theatre in the round style set-up, particularly in several beautifully executed group scenes.
Wasserstein’s keen wit and knack for back and forth dialogue is on powerful display in this production. While her observations can veer into stereotyping - such as Susan’s corporate conversion or Scoop’s ideas of marriage - taken in its context (less the revolutionary sheen), we can extract the sentiments most keenly felt by women of our generation. It feels less a matter of “can women have it all?” and more a question imposed upon us of “why don’t women have it all?” Women are constantly told they can do it all – which ignores the fact that gender inequality is still firmly rooted at work as well as in the home. When we’re smothered by the newspeak of neoliberal feminism, it becomes increasingly difficult to call a spade a spade – after all, you either shave your legs, or you don’t.
The Heidi Chronicles is on at New Theatre Newtown until the 9th July. For more information and tickets, click here http://newtheatre.org.au/season-2016/the-heidi-chronicles/
Photos by Bob Seary