We are all waiting for the rebirth of wonder. We’re waiting for it in our relationships, in our lives, in our work, in our art, in the theatre. But perhaps instead of waiting we should be doing. Instead of waiting to witness the miracle we should be the miracle. And Rep Stage kicks off the opening of their 25th season by doing just that. Presenting the story of wonder: the woman who can have it all, do it all, and be it all, The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein, this reverently crafted and poignantly potent coming of age drama is penned with finesse to fit the times, despite being arising from the late 1980’s. Directed by Jenna Duncan, this Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning script speaks to the everywoman about finding her place in an ever-changing world; this notion has only blossomed further as the decades have carried on, making the piece surprisingly relatable to the modern audience.
Modernity and simplicity go hand in hand for the production’s creative design team. Placing the performance in the round with a basic wooden floor design, allows Director Jenna Duncan to maximize the space’s versatility and potential. Scenic Designer James Fouchard puts the geometry referenced in the various paintings that Heidi discusses as an art historian into play with the moveable furnishings that are sharply squared or bulbously rounded. These eases the fluidity of scenic transition as well as relaxes the overall aesthetic of the performance.
Complimenting Fouchard’s scenic layout, Lighting Designer Adam Mendelson splays the art work featured during Heidi’s lectures directly onto the floor from a projector aligned above the space. This allows for a unique perspective, giving the audience a chance to focus on Heidi as she paces around the lecture space and simultaneously on the paintings are they are displayed. Mendelson also uses subtle overhead angled lighting to keep the scenes in focus, refusing to rely on the artifice of mood lighting to manufacture a feeling during the heavier emotional moments during the show. Costume Designer Eric Abele is the only member of the creative team to stray outside the borders of simplicity, but does so tastefully when it comes to appropriately accenting each of the decades through which the play passes. Most notably are the orange-sienna leather jackets featured on Peter Patrone and Heidi during the big protest scene, giving a real sense of bohemian 70’s protesting life.
The surprisingly impressive design element of the show comes from Sound Designer Sarah O’Halloran, whose musical selections snap forcibly into place between scenes, often harshly blinking one scene into the next without pause or preamble. This is an effective approach to motivating Duncan’s overall pacing of the show, keeping the first act motoring through as the characters traverse their way through the unstoppable path of time. Duncan lets O’Halloran’s soundscape underscore a great deal of the action throughout the performance, giving the show an almost cinematic quality, which enables the modern day sensationalized audience to more readily connect with the text and the characters.
Despite taking place in decades not so far removed from our own, Wendy Wasserstein’s tale of feminist growth and understanding has strong echoes that relate sharply to the modern day woman. When the pressure is on for equality, finding your place as a mother, wife, individual, career person, and ultimately finding yourself happy with your life choices are even more relevant now than perhaps they were 40 years ago. Director Jenna Duncan does a fine job of making these overarching themes a present focus of the work, not having to try too hard to draw them into parallels with modern day realities. The work speaks for itself and Duncan manages to highlight that without complicating it.
Though clearly Heidi Holland is the story’s main protagonist, everyone who plays a part in the production carries the weight of the show evenly on their shoulders, contributing with strong, organic performances that make these characters relatable, compassionate, and empathetic, allowing the audience to readily, willingly, and easily invest in their stories. Anderson Wells, Alina Collins Maldonado, Madeline Rose Burrows, and Hallie Cooper all take on multiple roles throughout the performance, each having a well-defined and distinguished set of characteristics that keep their characters individually separated from one another without bleed-through or carryover. Maldonado in particularly with her harsher character of Fran, is most notable among the aforementioned quartet of performers, appearing to be the most versatile of the bunch.
Melissa Flaim is the consistent female character that appears in Heidi’s life; there is a strong sororal bond between Flaim’s character and the Heidi character right from the beginning, even if it is initially introduced as a humorous best-friendship in the opening flashback sequence. Like all the performances in the production, Flaim is convivial of spirit, and earnest in her nature, going through multiple phases of character growth as her Susan experiences the changes of life, though vastly different from those that the Heidi character experiences. There is a short and snappy cheek in Flaim’s approach to handling Scoop (Rex Daugherty) character, an obvious marker of the catastrophic and volatile relationship that his character shares with Heidi.
Daugherty, as the charismatic and narcissistic Scoop Rosenbaum, is suave, seductive, and slippery like a journalistic eel wriggling through the primordial slime of the times. Surprisingly, however, Daugherty takes this potentially static character and gives him heart, creating instead a vivaciously dynamic and unexpectedly honest character that has a conscience, that has a soul, that even has regret and needs. Though Scoop’s thick exterior proves to be piggish, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately cocky, Daugherty unearths the more sensitive individual buried deep in the detritus of success, fame, and fortune. This is readily displayed in the second act during critical dialogue exchanges with Heidi.
Almost an outsider to the production, existing in his own bubble, the character of Peter Patrone (Joseph W. Ritsch) is a grounding rock for Heidi. Ritsch delivers the character with striking realism, carefully crafting the balance between snarky and stereotypical homosexual behavior and that of a human being that struggles deeply with life and his pursuits therein. The haunting penultimate Christmas Eve scene delivered by Ritsch is stirring, an evocative masterpiece that brings his character full circle to where it started and is one of the finest and most poignant moments in the production.
Superbly defining the titular role of Heidi Holland, Beth Hylton gives a phenomenal performance as the woman who can, the woman who does, and the woman who is. Hylton approaches Heidi with an open mind, and this is readily palpable and palatable when it comes to how the audience takes in the character as well. Like all of her fellow cast mates, Hylton’s production is honest, raw to fault at times, and engaging. The story of Heidi could be any woman’s story and is essentially everywoman’s story; Hylton makes this tale not only accessible on multiple emotional levels but encourages the audience to engage, empathize, sympathize, and relate to Heidi in all of her deep multi-faceted personalities. Showing a plethora of strength, growth, and other positive characteristics as she traverses the character’s growing arch, Hylton does the character and words of Wendy Wasserstein a great deal of justice.
Rep Stage has done an exceptional job of creating timeless theatre out of a piece of work that is specifically dated, and gives a tremendous amount of honesty in the performances put forward in this production. Well worth seeing, The Heidi Chronicles are a perfect way to welcome in their 25th season at Rep Stage.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
The Heidi Chronicles plays through September 24, 2017 at Rep Stage in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center on the campus of Howard Community College— 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at 443-518-1500 or purchase them online.