When Wendy Wasserstein was finding herself as a playwright, the question for her generation of women was whether they could "have it all." She struck gold with her 1988 hit play The Heidi Chronicles, a comedy-drama that follows Heidi Holland from high school student to middle-aged art historian. Throughout the play she struggles to reconcile the choices in her life involving career and family.
The Heidi Chronicles swept the new play awards (Pulitzer, Tony, Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics Circle), had a long run on Broadway, was adapted (with a screenplay by Wasserstein) for a made-for-TV movie and became something of a literary landmark for baby boomers. A production of the play opens this week at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota.
"Wendy was one of those odd ducks who manage to put their finger on something that an awful lot of people are feeling," said Julie Salamon, author of the playwright's biography, Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, recently released in paperback. "I think her willingness to talk about things that even sometimes sound almost petulant were the concerns of not the entire baby boom generation but an elite slice of it. She was expressing something that was very real to them."
At the end of The Heidi Chronicles, the protagonist is a single mother, having just adopted a baby. This represented a copout to many feminists of the time who "were disturbed by the play's possible implications: that a woman without a child was unfulfilled, that a modern woman had to choose between career and family, that babies were commodities that could be bartered to satisfy the maternal (or other) longings of affluent women," Salamon writes.
There was also a backlash against the upper-class characters in The Heidi Chronicles and other Wasserstein plays. They almost exclusively come from (as Salamon puts it in the book) "the subregion occupied by privileged, ambitious, educated American women born after World War II."
Heidi, of course, is very much like Wasserstein herself, a well-off New Yorker and Mount Holyoke and Yale Drama School grad who never married. To the surprise of even her closest friends, she became a single mother at 48, when she had a daughter through artificial insemination by a donor she never identified. The playwright died of cancer less than six years later in 2006.
Despite its still relatively rare standing as a big commercial success by a female playwright, The Heidi Chronicles is not revived all that frequently, though Salamon said in a phone interview from her New York home that a resurgence of interest in Wasserstein's plays is under way. Uncommon Women and Others, her first play, has always been popular for high school and college productions because of its well-drawn young female characters. The Sisters Rosensweig — a witty take on Chekhov's Three Sisters and based on the relationship of Wasserstein and her two sisters — is "the one that feels the least dated," Salamon said.
Laura Kepley, director of the Asolo production, thinks feminist critics misread The Heidi Chronicles. In her view, the play took on new relevance when family models evolved to encompass more than husband, wife and children.
"Yes, in the last scene Heidi is holding up her baby, but she is also working on her next book," Kepley said by phone during a break from rehearsal in Sarasota. "I think a lot of people saw just her holding up the baby. Heidi finds out she can't have it all, but she is going to take responsibility for her own happiness. For her that means that she's going to continue to work and she's going to have a baby. She doesn't get to have a romantic life partner, but she does have lifelong companionship with her friend Peter (a gay pediatrician). So she's making a new paradigm for herself. Certainly that's what modern families are doing. That was revolutionary at the time, but it's become much more regular now."
The title of Salamon's book refers to the boy who would never grow up, Peter Pan, suggesting not just the obsession with youth of Wasserstein's generation but also the wide circle of male friends that she called her "husbands," many of them gay and unattainable as mates. She was at the center of a glittering slice of New York theatrical society, with friends like playwrights Christopher Durang and Terrence McNally, designer William Ivey Long, directors James Lapine and Gerald Gutierrez, impresario Andre Bishop and critic Frank Rich.
"If you ask me what her greatest skill was, she was an amazing friend," Salamon said. "The friends she had are so fiercely loyal to her. She attracted such a brilliant group of people."
Wasserstein's output as a playwright was slim, with only about half a dozen major works. She did, however, a write a lot of journalism for the New Yorker, Mademoiselle, New York Woman and other magazines.
"I think the articles she wrote for the New Yorker — a piece about her daughter, Lucy Jane, a piece about her oldest sister, Sandra — were at least as good as her best plays," Salamon said. "They certainly came more naturally to her. What I found while going through her papers is that when she wrote the plays, the drafts were full of crossed-out lines, but when she wrote the articles, she wrote them almost straight through. They just poured out of her. That was a real talent she had, the personal essay. She was really good at writing about this character called Wendy Wasserstein."
In the end, Wendy and the Lost Boys tells a rather sad story. Wendy, her sister Sandra and her brother Bruce, a billionaire investment banker, all died prematurely. Salamon said she found a key theme of the biography — the secretiveness of the playwright in keeping parts of her life from friends — in an essay by Rich after her death.
"How could the most public artist in New York keep so much locked up?" Rich wrote for the New York Times Magazine. "I don't think I was the only friend who felt I had somehow failed to see Wendy whole. And who wondered if I had let her down in some profound way. I grieve as much for the Wendy I didn't know as the Wendy I did."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.