Wendy Wasserstein: An appreciation

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Almost 20 years ago, when I was backstage at the old Playwrights Horizons theater looking to interview the author of the play "The Heidi Chronicles," a smiling, plain-looking woman backstage offered me her hand. "That's me," she giggled. "I'm Wendy Wasserstein." I thought she was an usher.

And up until she passed away on Monday, this most accomplished American playwright of the baby-boomer generation managed to retain that unaffected, unpretentious manner. It was her work that was affecting, influential, and complex.

"The Heidi Chronicles" proved to be a sensation and established her as a significant dramatist. In it, she spoke to, for, and about the struggles of newly liberated young women. The character of Heidi Holland, brought to life through Joan Allen's compelling performance, potrayed 22 years of a smart woman's journey to discover the true meaning of personal fulfillment.

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"Wendy's insight and humor touched so many women grappling with their identities, and with the challenges in balancing their professional and personal lives," says Ms. Allen. "She had a completely original voice and understood the power of using wit to explore issues of feminism, sexism, and humanism. It was a privilege for me to play Heidi."

"You could just say 'Wendy,' and people knew who you meant," observes Jane Alexander, who starred on Broadway in Wasserstein's most popular play, "The Sisters Rosensweig." Portraying the eldest of three Jewish sisters, Ms. Alexander notes that as a person, the playwright was "very grounded, almost unflappable. And she was so accurate in her perceptions about people, always an acute observer of life."

She was always meticulous about her work, too. The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner once confided that she spent an entire summer rewriting one scene in "Heidi." Other plays, screenplays, essays, and books followed. (No woman playwright has had more plays presented on Broadway.) Her work was interspersed with service to worthwhile causes, including the founding of Open Doors, a New York City public high school mentoring program for young writers. "She never turned down an important cause," says Alexander.

When we last see the character of Heidi, she's 40, single, and has adopted a baby girl. At the time (1989), this was a controversial choice for a woman. Wasserstein laughed as she recalled how she was constantly assuring people back then. "I'm not saying that for a woman to be happy she had to have a child," she said. "That was Heidi's choice, and there are many choices, all of them valid."

Wasserstein, unmarried in her late 40s, chose to become a single mother, giving birth to Lucy Jane, refusing to disclose the identity of the father. She gave the world plays, and characters, that echoed the deepest fears and hard-won triumphs of two generations of women.

Two years ago, looking back on "The Heidi Chronicles," Wasserstein told me that "Heidi was in the pursuit of believing that she was doing something important, and it wasn't something she would compromise because of her gender."

Those who knew her, or her work, will attest that the playwright accomplished what her character set out to do.

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