The life and times story of an American woman experimenting with feminism in the 60s, 70s and 80s may not seem like it has much relevance on today’s Sydney stage. But in bringing Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles to life, the team at the New Theatre have successfully highlighted the very long way women still have to go before they are considered equal to men.
Written in 1989, as Wasserstein approached her fortieth birthday, The Heidi Chronicles charts the progression of Heidi from naïve girl to casual feminist to professional art historian and champion to women who want it all. Circling Heidi are long term gal-pal Susan, Peter (who is arguably the love of her life), and Scoop, a geeky playboy who never quite gets away. Their intertwined story unfolds against the backdrop of the politically charged 60s, lingerie-igniting 70s, and ‘greed is good’ 80s, and the significant events of these decades are not ignored by playwright or director of this production.
Lauren Dillon is charged with the role of Heidi, and delivers confidently, drawing us in despite Heidi’s occasional aloof presence. Dillon’s Heidi is wide-eyed and bewildered at the life that befalls her, despite her best efforts. But she is not a victim – a strength shows beneath her fidgeting fingers and shuffling feet. Her monologue in the second act is excellent.
As Peter Patrone, Darren Sabadina is charming if a little rushed. His performance has many convincing moments, particularly when he is allowed to camp it up, but occasionally you are left wondering if he needed a little more time to deliver a line or could have benefited from some well-placed, thoughtful pauses.
Playing Scoop Rosenbaum, the kind of man we women love to hate, is Matthew Charleston. Charleston’s rendition is sound, but I couldn’t help want a little more arrogance and cocky charm from this love interest.
Rounding out the primary cast is Caroline Levien as Susan Johnston, who is essentially the embodiment of the women’s movement through the eras. A challenging part, played with a sense of fun by Levien.
Ably supporting the leads is a cast of talented performers who weave chameleon-like through the play. Special mention goes to Sarah Aubrey for her comic turn as 80s talk show host April. There is humour and heartbreak throughout, which Director, Alice Livingstone, draws subtly from her actors.
Livingstone has also successfully wrangled the cast across the decades, making full use of the design skills of her creative team. Costume Designer, Famke Visser, has done her research, and captures these iconic fashion eras well without resorting to kitsch.
David Marshall-Martin’s set design is shrewd and simple. The action takes place against blank white walls onto which are projected familiar, historical images of the time (see below). Simple grey boxes are used for furniture, giving the whole space the feeling of being inside an art gallery; a nod to the occupation of our heroine. The only downside was the perpetual smoke haze that lingered above the stage, presumably intended to add depth to the lighting design but mostly just distracting us from the action. In hindsight, perhaps this was actually a deliberate ploy, as from what I know of the 60s, 70s and 80s almost everyone was surrounded by a permanent cloud of cigarette smoke.
The musical choices are inspired and well recorded, as are the sound effects. The lighting is minimal but effective, and props era-appropriate and not overdone. The selection of art and photography used to depict each milestone year is well curated, but I wanted more historical references towards the end. Was it just that nothing of real significance happened in the 80s or was this simply a way to highlight how the characters’ lives were no longer driven by causes bigger than their own? Regardless, the projections are a clever device. Make sure you keep an eye out for the montage at the close.
Overall, this is a play that gives voice to the women of the baby boomer generation, who believed in their cause and hoped for a better future for their children. As a child born to such a woman, I was left with both a feeling of defeat and of frustration. We may not have reverted back to 50s housewives, but women today are still allowing themselves to be controlled – by fashion, society and consumerism. The Heidi Chronicles has a lot to say to the current generation of 20 to 30-something women, and the deft hands at the New Theatre have allowed these messages to come through loud and clear.
The Heidi Chronicles is playing at New Theatre, Newtown until 9 July. For bookings, visit: http://newtheatre.org.au/
The reviewer attended opening night, Thursday 7th June, 2016.
Photos: © Bob Seary