Fascinating Feminist

Sybille Bruun shines as art historian Heidi Holland in LTW's 'The Heidi Chronicles'

A production of Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles can go wrong in so many ways--too earnest, too reliant on clever laugh lines, too sketchy in its characterizations. Yet Live Theatre Workshop's production of Wasserstein's greatest hit goes right in just about every way possible. OK, with more money and more space, the sets could have been spiffier and more specific, but in every other respect, it's perfectly judged, a funny and touching account of a woman's discovery that being liberated isn't the same as being rescued.

Amy Almquist deftly directs this production of the 1989 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play that follows art historian Heidi Holland through nearly 25 years of feminism. Heidi, in the person of Sybille Bruun, is intelligent, attractive and accomplished, yet she remains somehow untethered as she watches her friends and lovers find their own secure places in the world. At a high school dance in 1965, she proves to be a brainy wallflower, and so she remains for the next quarter-century. In a 1989 art lecture, she describes the art historian as "a highly informed spectator," and art historian Heidi has indeed been detached from her own life. "I'm not involved with him anymore," she says of a boyfriend. "I just enjoy sleeping with him."

Un-centered Heidi can be a difficult character for an actress to get a fix on. At one extreme, she can seem disengaged and totally unsympathetic; at the other, she can revel in her occasional wisecracks with such gusto that you have to wonder why she mopes around the rest of the time. But Bruun locates the key to Heidi's character in that early high school dance scene. This Heidi is fully capable of witty banter, whether with a man who intrigues her or with an audience of art students, but she's basically a shy person who finds it easier to observe the people around her than to leap into the action herself.

And so Bruun conveys Heidi's quiet wistfulness right from the beginning, and draws upon it through the course of the play. She delivers Heidi's quips gently, not as caustically as the script sometimes implies, but the advantage is a fully consistent and always sympathetic character. Bruun puts her natural elegance to good use here; Heidi is always graceful in her sadness and confusion, and it seems perfectly reasonable that nobody around her realizes the depths and roots of her dissatisfaction.

Heidi can seem like a secondary figure in her own story, so it's a good thing that the other main actors in this production have no trouble matching Bruun's standards. Roscoe Gaines hits all the right notes as the charismatic but borderline-despicable Scoop Rosenbaum, an arrogant, self-centered prick who nevertheless fascinates Heidi. They have a brief affair, and never quite get over each other, even though Scoop goes on to marry someone else and launch an enormously successful pop-zeitgeist magazine.

Jeremy Thompson is equally strong as Peter Patrone, who, since their high school years, has been Heidi's soulmate; the only problem is that he's gay. Thompson is especially fun in a scene in which Peter, Heidi and Scoop appear on a TV talk show; while Heidi can hardly get a word in edgewise, the loveably cynical Peter does his best to keep Scoop's optimistic platitudes from winning over the vapid host.

Heidi's best friend, Susan, goes through a number of personality changes over the years, but Kristi Loera does a fine job of maintaining a thread of consistency through the character. More than a dozen smaller parts are handled well by a handful of actors, most notably Nell Summers, Jodi L. Rankin and Molly Holleran.

The Heidi Chronicles is by no means anti-feminist, but it's an honest portrait of a generation of women, many of whom learned that finding fulfillment was far more complicated than burning their lingerie and demonstrating for equal pay and equal opportunity. In the confusion of it all, Heidi comes out feeling simultaneously worthless and superior. But there's no confusion over Live Theatre Workshop's production--it's unambiguously superior.

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