Chronicling a Life: Reflections on Feminism Past and Present
The nostalgic years of poodle skirts and “American Bandstand” drifted into Oberlin last Thursday as The Heidi Chronicles concocted a chemistry of characters that opened to a packed Cat in the Cream. The student-directed play ran through this past Sunday. While tickets were free from Wilder, many who wished to come on weekend nights simply couldn’t find seats.
Directed by College sophomore Sarah Frank, the Oberlin Student Theatre Association-funded show was a huge hit. The play was written by Wendy Wasserstein in 1988 and won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1989. Through the life of main character, Heidi Holland (College sophomore Rebecca Balmer), the play deals with feminism, gender roles and the angst-ridden lives of the baby-boom generation,
The drama of the show is contained within small vignettes, each flashback chronicling a new and significant episode in Heidi’s life. We watch her become a feminist as an undergraduate, protest the lack of representation of women artists in museums in grad school and we witness her post-grad success as an art historian. Finally, we see her growing disenchantment and sense of betrayal and isolation from her generation and the women’s movement as a single woman in the late 1980s.
Along the way we also learn of the changing lives and influences of various friends and lovers — Peter Patrone, played by double degree student Alex Birnie, was one of the most constantly entertaining characters. Peter comes out as gay midway through the play, which results in a complex scene where he struggles to admit his sexual orientation to Heidi. She tries to deal with her own prejudices and her sense of betrayal — she, as well as the audience, had thus far been under the impression that Peter was madly in love with her. The scene was nicely handled and compellingly acted by both parts.
In this scene and all others, Birnie nails his character. He manages to communicate his caustic sarcasm and sometimes hurtful wit covering his fear and sense of vulnerability. Each of his scenes had me riveted, and the occasional long spans in which he wasn’t included in the action actually led me to wonder when he’d be back.
Birnie and Balmer had a wonderful chemistry together, and the two brought out the best in each other. To watch the pair engage in Wasserstein’s fast-paced, witty and emotionally rich dialogue was a joy.
The other sporadically present man in Heidi’s life is Scoop Rosenbaum (College sophomore Derrick Bean). An ambitious Jewish man who hits on Heidi at a political mixer in 1968, Rosenbaum is threatened by Heidi’s ambition. Despite having led her on for years, he eventually marries a simple, young Southern girl named Lisa (College first-year Rachel Cotterman). Bean and Balmer’s chemistry, like Heidi and Scoop’s relationship, was on-again off-again. The actors nailed a few scenes, but some — such as the scene at Scoop’s wedding reception, in which Scoop confesses why he could never marry Heidi — were lackluster. A few times, they simply felt too long.
Balmer herself played Heidi nicely, although I felt occasionally as though she was straining to keep up a constantly high level of emotion. In one scene, for example, Heidi speaks of her disillusionment with the women’s movement to her high school alumnae, which becomes a desperate-sounding, intense and almost whiny plea.
To be fair, the character of Heidi is on stage throughout most of the almost three-hour show, and Balmer did show remarkable endurance as an actor as she managed to continuously keep up the vivacity and complexities of Heidi’s character for the length of the play.
The other characters were entertainingly played and welcome additions to the cast of Heidi’s life, and many actors in smaller roles managed to transform what could have easily been flat characters into more well-rounded, compelling personalities.
Frank did an excellent job of directing. One particularly good touch was that during scene changes, Frank projected iconic images from each decade in the play onto white screens on either side of the stage to a soundtrack of pop songs from the period. At first, they had technical trouble with the timing and placing of the projections, but by the end it ran smoothly.
While some themes of the play might seem more topical to our parents’ generation than our own, the themes of friendship, love, loneliness, ambition and anxiety about the future were ones that felt more universal to me. These are themes relevant to most anyone of college age, as we meander, like Heidi, through the chronicles of our own lives.