At Trinity Rep, Providence, RI
by David Curcio
“Valuing happiness is not necessarily linked to greater happiness. In fact, under certain conditions, the opposite is true. Under conditions of low (but not high) life stress, the more people valued happiness… the higher their depressive symptoms.”*
In an interview with Vivienne Benesch, the director of The Heidi Chronicles at the Trinity Rep in Providence, she pulls an unusual quote, made by the main character, from a highly quotable play: “I’m afraid I haven’t been happy for some time.” With this line, Benesch reveals her vision of the play as a study in the search for happiness, with its backdrop of militant, idealistic second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s and the insufferable self-obsession of the 80s, when money rendered such ideals a lot less pressing.
Heidi, played with blushing earnestness by Angela Brazil, is an art historian with a focus on arcane female painters from the Madonnas of the Renaissance to “the present day.” With her focus on the ways in which women portray themselves (and other women) through the ages, she seems to be looking for the ways these pictures of women in liminal moments – at once inviting us in while remaining slightly aloof – might reveal something about herself, and maybe they do. Like these woefully underrepresented artists and their subjects, Heidi is forever skirting the esprit de corps without fully engaging. Like Zelig, she’s a witness when it all goes down but never an active participant. From a college “Students for McCarthy” mixer to “Consciousness Raising” feminist retreats to baby showers in apartments on Central Park West and power lunches with her executive friends, Heidi remains an outsider.
The looming question is why Wendy Wasserstein’s play, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, is relevant today. For all of the (fantastic) cast’s enthusiasm, it feels a bit dusted off, and a dismal reminder of how little progress feminism has made. Director Benesch laments that “we will probably never be post-feminist,” and if we define post-feminist as a meaningful reaction against the contradictions and black-and-white thinking of the second-wave feminism of the sixties and seventies, or as the notion that second-wave feminism is so assimilated into our society we assume it has “won” (a phenomenon also referred to as Enlightened Sexism), she is at least partly right. Feminism as a movement is protean, with definitions and goals that are forever shifting with the political, financial and social climate of the day. With ongoing wage discrepancies, the dearth of women in executive positions, the all-out war on birth control, abortion and HPV vaccination, and a presidential frontrunner who attributes much-deserved criticism by a female journalist to her period, can this battle ever end, let alone be won?
But I think Heidi already knows this. As a woman who looks at paintings for a living, she sees the subtle shades of gray that compose the world, and her militant friends’ taunts “either you shave your legs or you don’t” demand self-definition based on arbitrary black-and-white thinking that Heidi cannot accept. Her two male friends, one a handsome, sensitive homosexual doctor and the other a philandering blowhard, represent the breadth of the male sex in Wasserstein’s universe: either a perfect but unattainable specimen or a (surprisingly ernest) scumbag who’s always up for a romp. She remains friends with them throughout the play’s span of twenty one years, but they show little change or growth. Peter is steady and compassionate, but ultimately a crushed cynic in the face of the AIDS epidemic. Scoop takes Heidi’s virginity at a college mixer and appears and reappears over the years with the same frequency as Peter – a friend perhaps, albeit one who forever wants to get in her pants just one more time despite his marriage. He’s played with a believable, endearing schmuckiness (if there is such a thing) by Mauro Hantman.
The idealism of the seventies caving to the self-absorption and financial highs of the eighties is embodied in Heidi’s friend Susan, a “lingerie burning” radical turned Hollywood Power exec. In an exclusive restaurant where Diane Keaton is dining a few tables away, she tells her lunch companions, “Equal rights is one thing. Equal pay is one thing. But winning because you’re a woman is something else!” And with that kind of dough, who has time to think about equality? The shift from idealism to self-absorption begs the question: were Heidi’s peers this shallow all along, and does money just allow them to embrace it?
As I sat in the theater I wondered what the intended audience might be. Vivienne Benesch says that “any play with this many funny, smart women can be an eye-opener for men.” A bit of condescension from the director – as a man, it should sting, but it doesn’t. Just what kind of bimbos does Benesch think us men hang out with? While executed seamlessly, the production is ultimately a nostalgia piece for the baby-boomer set, who can first have a good laugh at the funny ways they dressed and then a serious reflection on whether their lofty ideals were really attained.
The brilliant, spare sets and one thousand percent believable costumes (by Lee Savage and Tracy Christensen respectively), and the charismatic, wholly believable performances across the board were not enough to save this production from its worn material. Happiness, Heidi’s ever-elusive ideal, is presented in the play as life’s greatest of mysteries. It is therefore apposite to paraphrase Heidi’s friend Scoop, the jagoff philanderer, who provides Heidi with the maxim that if one aims for a six out of ten in life, there will be no disappointments. It is when one shoots for the ten that things get depressing and despair can set in. The play’s ending shows Heidi as a single mother. Is this a cop out? Does it perpetuate the notion that only by having children will a woman be happy, or does it acknowledge a genuine, biological maternal instinct, the fulfillment of which brings meaning to this life of an observer? Scoop might ask if this a six or a ten, and I wondered the same. But did feminism ever address the key to individual happiness, and does Heidi’s motherhood provide satisfactory closure to these twenty nine years? Sadly, it translates more as an admission that the progress we were hoping for never really happened and that hopefully the next generation will fix it.
*From Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness.
by Iria B. Mauss, Maya Tamir, Craig L. Anderson, and Nicole S. Savino, Nicole S. in
Emotion, Vol 11(4), Aug 2011.
The Heidi Chronicles is playing at the Trinity Rep in Providence through January 3rd. www.trinityrep.com