Wendy Wasserstein’s great play: Leigh Silverman on directing The Heidi Chronicles at the Guthrie

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Playwright Wendy Wasserstein was the theatrical voice for a slice of women from the Baby Boom generation. In her most popular play, The Heidi Chronicles, the eponymous protagonist, Heidi Holland, moves around in time: from a high school dance in 1965; through feminist consciousness-raising, in the 1970s; and coming to terms with her life and career choices, in 1989.

Wasserstein, who also wrote screenplays and essays, died in 2006. She was just 55.

Funny, affecting and brilliantly written, The Heidi Chronicles comes to the Guthrie Theater, in a production that runs from Sept. 13-Oct. 28.

Leigh Silverman, making her directorial debut at the Guthrie, recently talked with the American Jewish World. The interview took place at the theater; it was the fourth day of rehearsals for the show.

This year, Silverman was a Tony Award nominee for best director of a musical. The show, Violet, written by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley, ended its Broadway run last month. Silverman also directed the Broadway shows Chinglish and Well, and numerous works in off-Broadway theaters.

A Washington, D.C., native, Silverman attended Carnegie-Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. Her undergrad major was in directing; and she simultaneously pursued a graduate degree in playwriting.

“I was really interested in new plays,” she explains, “and I wanted to be in a room with a writer, and there was no other way to do that except be a writer myself. I was good enough to get into the program, but I’m not actually a good playwright.”

After Carnegie Mellon, Silverman, 39, moved to New York, where she has established her career as a stage director over the past 19 years.

Regarding her job at the Guthrie, Silverman says that she has been offered other plays before, but the opportunities never worked with her schedule. Then, Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling saw one of her plays in New York, and offered her The Heidi Chronicles.

“I’ve always wanted to work here,” she says, about coming to the famous Minneapolis repertory theater. “Because it’s Joe’s last season, I felt really honored to do the first play of the season… It seemed like this was just the perfect combination. I’ve been very anxious about directing a Wendy Wasserstein play; I really wanted to do one of them. I did a reading of her first play, Uncommon Women [and Others], last year in New York; and I fell in love with her writing and have steeped myself in Wendy Wasserstein.”

Perhaps Dowling wanted a Jewish woman to direct a play by an acclaimed female Jewish playwright?

“I hope that I’m always just chosen because of my talent, and that I’m the person who gets a job because I’m good at what I do, not because I’m a woman or because I’m Jewish,” Silverman replies. “Certainly, I feel it’s smart to hire a female Jewish director to do this play — but there’s a lot of us, thankfully.”

The Heidi Chronicles, which opened on Broadway in 1989, begins in 1989, as Heidi, an art historian, is delivering a lecture on accomplished women painters through the ages, at Columbia University. Heidi points out that these artists have been written out of the annals of art. There’s “no trace” of Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, “or any other woman artist prior to the twentieth century, in your current art history textbook,” says Heidi.

The next scene in the play is a high school dance, in 1965, where Heidi and her friend, Susan Johnston, talk about the boys, including Peter Patrone, who is destined to be Heidi’s lifelong friend. In Scene 2, Heidi meets Scoop Rosenbaum, at a dance, in 1968, an event for the Eugene McCarthy for President campaign. Their complicated relationship unfolds through the course of the play.

(As it happened, after my high school graduation, in the summer of 1968, I canvassed for the McCarthy campaign in Wisconsin. The Minnesota senator was the anti-Vietnam War candidate who challenged the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson.)

The play then shifts to 1970, for Scene 3, which is set in a church basement. Susan brings Heidi along to the “Huron Street Ann Arbor Consciousness-raising Rap Group.” It’s the dawn of feminist consciousness for the Baby Boomers, and women are coming to the movement from different points in their lives. The women in the group are bawdy and forthright, and when put on the spot, Heidi meekly says, “I’m just visiting.”

As a college student at that time, I remember that young women were meeting to sort out their issues; but I asked Silverman how she thinks younger audience members, especially women, will perceive this scene.

“My mother was part of a consciousness-raising group,” Silverman comments. “Sure, things are a lot different in 2014. I still feel like issues about gender parity and equality are incredibly present — and relevant, unfortunately, in a certain way.”

And she says that The Heidi Chronicles expresses “the need for women, in particular… to balance wanting to have it all: be a mother, have a career, and the sacrifices and the cost of that — those are human struggles. The emotional resonance of those issues is as current today as it was in the ’70s.”

On this point, Silverman draws on her recent Broadway experience.

“This past spring, I was the only woman director nominated for a Tony, in either the play or the musical theater categories,” she says. “I was the only woman, and I spent an entire season doing press lines and red carpets, where people said, ‘Well, how does it feel to be the only woman?’ After a couple of months of that, it was exhausting. I had to gather a bunch of women directors around me at the end of all of it and say, ‘What does it mean to be a woman director? What is that about? Is that really how I identify?’ It really brought up a lot of questions for me.”

She continues: “Then coming [to the Guthrie] and working on this play, these women [characters] are asking the same questions. How do we be strong feminist women, who are ambitious and want things and want family, and still hold on to a sense of ourselves? And how do we figure out if that’s what we want, and what’s the cost of all that? I think it’s a rich, potent, complicated question that’s as important now as it was when Wendy was writing about that rap group. And in some ways… without knowing it, I put my own rap group together, in New York, because I just needed to have a bunch of women around me…”

In her introduction to an interview with Wasserstein some years ago, for Bomb Magazine, the novelist A.M. Homes wrote: “Wasserstein’s women are aware, very aware of what they have, what they’re missing and what they want. They are women who think they should be content with what they have and are frustrated because they are not — they want more. A writer writes to make sense out of things, to put order to experience; Wendy Wasserstein does all that and more — she writes to illuminate, to clarify, to ask questions and to entertain.”

Wasserstein was an accomplished and lauded playwright. In addition to The Heidi Chronicles and the previously mentioned Uncommon Women and Others, she wrote Isn’t It Romantic, The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter, and other plays and screenplays.

“Wendy is one of our major American playwrights, and her Jewishness was a big part of who she was,” Silverman points out. “She was from a very prominent Jewish family in New York; her father ran a textile business. Her Jewish roots are deep — she wrote a book [of essays] called Shiksa Goddess.”

Silverman adds that in addition to her writing for the stage and silver screen, Wasserstein wrote “a lot of essays” for The New Yorker, Ms., New Woman and other magazines. She also wrote a column for the New York Times.

However, like the protagonist in The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein struggled with her family and personal relationships.

Julie Salamon, in her biography Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, writes, Wendy never overcame the powerful force of family expectations. At an age when her contemporaries were declaring their independence, she remained stuck in childhood struggles for approval. Even as she created an alternative family of friends, her parents and siblings remained the standard-bearers for success. They continued to influence, unnerve, exasperate — and to comfort her.”

Silverman allows that Wasserstein had “a very complicated personal life.”

On the theme of personal insecurities, Silverman points to lines from The Heidi Chronicles, when Heidi, in the course of a talk for a luncheon group, in 1986, describes herself amid a group of women in a locker room before an aerobics class. As she freaks out and beats a retreat, Heidi issues a stream of apologies: “I’m sorry I don’t want you to find out I’m worthless. And superior.”

“The conflict is: you’re never good enough, but you’re the best,” Silverman says, about the renowned playwright’s conflicted personality. “I don’t know if that’s a uniquely Jewish feeling. There’s a sort of famous story, when she was celebrating winning the Pulitzer [for The Heidi Chronicles], her mother told everyone she had won the Nobel. And then she had to say, ‘No, no, it was just the Pulitzer.’ And when she won the Tony Award — she was the first woman playwright to win the Tony Award — they were at Tavern on the Green… and her mother said, ‘Wendy, the only thing better would be if this was your wedding.’”

The Heidi Chronicles will be presented on the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage from Sept. 13-Oct. 26. For tickets, call the Guthrie box office at 612-377-2224. For information, go to: guthrietheater.org.

Also, Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council has secured discounted tickets for the Oct. 19 (7 p.m.) performance of The Heidi Chronicles. Reservations can be made (by Sept. 19) by calling 952-381-3449; or go to: rimonmn.org.