Human Connections - A Playwright's View

Wendy Wasserstein discusses issues in `The Heidi Chronicles'. THEATER: INTERVIEW

`I'VE always assumed that women's stories were as interesting as men's,'' says a puzzled Wendy Wasserstein. ``And I've never understood why it's taken so long for them to get on stage.'' Apparently the times have finally caught up with her. Ms. Wasserstein's newest play, ``The Heidi Chronicles,'' which follows 24 years of a woman's life, has received as much attention as any playwright could wish for: a transfer to Broadway, a Tony Award, and a Pulitzer Prize.

The funny-sad story of Heidi, a mild-mannered art historian who's got everything - and nothing - seems to have hit home, causing writers to label it everything from ``entirely bourgeois'' to ``a subterranean assault on ... the yuppie standard.''

A single woman in her early 40s, Heidi Holland is the kind of person who gets profiled in New York Woman magazine: She's respected in her field; she's independent, healthy, attractive. She's created a life for herself and by herself, and she hasn't compromised along the way.

But Heidi is lonely. ``She feels distant from everything,'' says Wasserstein. ``She's like this UFO - way out there - and it makes her very sad.'' In a much-written-about final twist, Heidi adopts a baby.

Some critics have cheered for Wasserstein's courage in proposing that being depended upon may be as vital to human beings as being independent. Said a writer for the New Republic: ``[It] demonstrates what an empty exercise is life without a passionate calling or an overarching commitment.''

Others have felt that Wasserstein is being a traitor to the women's movement. A critic for the Village Voice wrote: ``Heidi's understanding of feminism is as superficial as you can get [and] ... Wasserstein punishes her for it, as if it's feminism's fault she doesn't have both a career and a family.''

Wasserstein's plays don't offer any simple answers. Does the playwright herself feel that Heidi has made a mistake?

``People need to connect sometime,'' Wasserstein comments with an ironic laugh. ``You don't want to be outside all of your life. You want to land; you want to have a home of some sort. I mean, companionship is basic to human life.

``To try to connect to somebody else is a good thing to do and a very hard thing to do, if you do it honestly. To do it falsely - I'm a lawyer, you're a lawyer, let's buy a condo and a BMW - can be discomfiting. I don't think adopting the baby is a total solution for Heidi's life's problems, but it's something she really wanted to do.''

Wasserstein is emphatically noncommittal about the play's ``feminist'' slant, however. ``Why call it `feminist?''' she asks. ``You'd never ask a man `Is this a masculinist play?' I didn't write it as either a feminist tract nor a non-feminist tract. I wasn't setting about to be didactic in any way.

``To me, good playwriting is about a character, not a political philosophy. `Heidi' is about an art historian who goes through a sad period in her life and comes out of it. It's just a play about a girl, a character. If there's an idea, it comes from her.''

Perhaps not on purpose, but as a successful career woman near 40 herself, unmarried and without children, Wasserstein seems to inject some of her own views into Heidi's decisions. Deny it she may, but Wasserstein has always been a social chronicler in her playwrighting.

``Uncommon Women and Others,'' her first play, written in 1977 while she was at Yale and later produced Off Broadway, takes place at Wasserstein's alma mater, Mt. Holyoke College, an all-women's school.

The play is a series of scenes in the dorm rooms of eight seniors who are in various stages of figuring out what they want and what they believe about careers, sex, responsibility, and ethics. ``Uncommon Women'' delivers not a story so much as a cumulative impression of a generation that is both cynical and hopeful, self-aware and confused.

``The change was happening right then,'' explains Wasserstein. ``We were on the cusp [in 1972]. Those schools were co-educating right then. All those books came out right then. It was just boom, boom, boom. And it really affected us.

``I wrote `Uncommon Women' at Yale because I wanted to see an all-woman curtain call there. I wanted to see those college girls on stage, because I thought they were play-worthy. And, by the way, for a woman to be play-worthy she doesn't have to be insane or desperate or deliriously crazy.''

Her next produced play, ``Isn't It Romantic,'' which had a long run Off Broadway beginning in 1983, is a deceptively funny story of two young women in New York trying to chisel out careers and relationships for themselves. Harriet is a confident, capable businesswoman. Janie is a vulnerable writer who is awed by her friend's strength.

Despite its lighthearted title and numerous jokes, the play is a serious look at a disintegrating friendship. In the end of ``Isn't it Romantic,'' Janie, the ``weaker'' of the two girls, is morally deserted by her friend and left without support. All of Harriet's liberated talk turns out to be more a useful image than real conviction.

The seeds of ``The Heidi Chronicles'' are clearly sown at the end of ``Isn't It Romantic.'' Janie is left alone with her desire for self-determination. Fifteen years later, Janie has figuratively become Heidi, still unmarried, with almost no close friends.

Wasserstein feels that many women still haven't come to terms with Janie/Heidi's situation.

``A lot of people's attitude is that the `women's issue' is solved - it's over and done with,'' she says. ``I went out to dinner recently with this girl whom I very much like. She's maybe 27, the first in her class at [college]. And she says to me: `I love the play, but Wendy - what was the problem?'''

Wasserstein laughs with hearty disbelief. ``I guess it's good, in a way. These younger women's assumptions for themselves are so positive; they're less conflicted than my friends are for themselves.

``... My niece is about to go to law school,'' she continues, ``and that's great, but wait until she has children. What will she do then?

``Look at this `mommy track' that everyone's talking about - this whole idea of corporations creating jobs for women working part-time who have children. It sounds good, doesn't it? But notice there's no `Daddy Track.' And the women with the same education as daddy still won't get the same kind of job.''

Wasserstein feels she's from a totally different generation than these younger women. ``I'm very ... let's say wary.

``I think it's a problem to assume that everything's taken care of when it comes to women's rights. ... You go along thinking everything's fine, and then something like this Supreme Court ruling about abortion comes out, and you realize we could slip back so easily.

``It's very insidious, you know. We believe we've moved along so far, but ... I just don't know. ...

``What's good about `Heidi,''' Wasserman adds, ``is that the play has caused conversation about a topic that people weren't having conversations about so much anymore.''

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