Playwriting “Like a Girl”

In a “Curtain Call” column last August, I pointed out the scarcity of plays by women staged locally. But I neglected to mention one of the most important writers of the late 20th century: Wendy Wasserstein.

Feb 4, 2015 at 2:39 pm

Did you see the Procter & Gamble “like a girl” ad during the Super Bowl? It turned the phrase, too often used disparagingly, to mean something powerful. I’m grabbing that commendable notion (thanks P&G) and applying it to the writing of plays, where writing “like a girl” has often been ignored and insufficiently produced.

In a “Curtain Call” column last August, I pointed out the scarcity of plays by women staged locally. But I neglected to mention one of the most important writers of the late 20th century: Wendy Wasserstein, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for the same play, The Heidi Chronicles, in 1989. Surprisingly, none of her shows have been staged in Cincinnati. Wasserstein died nearly a decade ago at 55 (from a startlingly rapid encounter with ovarian cancer), but she remains an admired figure in the American theater. I don’t know why her work has been ignored by our local theaters.

Thanks to Richard Hess, head of drama at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, we will finally have a production of The Heidi Chronicles from Feb. 12 to 14 at Patricia Corbett Theater. Wasserstein’s story — rooted in her own experience — about two decades in the life of Heidi Holland starts with her in high school in the late 1960s and advances to a career as a successful art historian in the late 1980s.

The play deserves more than a few days of performance (that’s as much as any show receives on CCM’s busy stages), but a taste is better than nothing. Wasserstein was a storyteller who once said, “I hope my plays make people want to go to the theater.” And they did.

Hess has long admired her award-winning play. In 1988 when he was an aspiring theater artist on a tight budget, he twice bought a ticket to see it on Broadway, something he’s seldom ever done.

“She’s funny and smart in a way that I loved,” he says.

The Heidi Chronicles deals with the changing role of women in the 1970s and 1980s. Heidi evolves from being an ardent feminist to yearning for motherhood and adopting a child. (Wasserstein never married, but did have a child in 1998.)

“It’s a play that’s very much of its time,” Hess observes. But he feels the issues underpinning Wasserstein’s script remain deeply relevant. When she spoke at The Chautauqua Institution in 2004, Hess attended. He believes what she said is still important.

She described going to see Broadway shows when she was a girl. “I’d always wonder, ‘Where are the girls?’ ”

It’s a question she might still ask today. But she went on: “And where are the smart girls? When the ingénue would start singing, I would sort of get bored and wish the funny, smart girl would come back on. At a very early age I became interested in women onstage and voices for women in the theater.”

Her interest never waned.

During graduate school at Yale in the 1970s, she and playwright Christopher Durang went to the movies.

“We loved films from the ’30s and ’40s. There were better parts for women and women screenwriters then — Edna Ferber, Anita Loos, Claire Booth Luce. I became very interested in these films and in the dialogue of bright women.”

She wrote a play set at Mount Holyoke College, the all-women’s school where she was a history major. Uncommon Women and Others was produced in 1976. At a talkback after a performance, a young man said, “I can’t get into this: It’s about girls.” She sharply replied, “I’ve spent my life getting into Robin Hood and Hamlet, so why don’t you try it?” That kind of straight talk was typical of Wasserstein.

She called plays an “odd hybrid,” written as literature but produced for audiences. “You can hear them as they would be spoken,” she said in her Chautauqua lecture, “but you can read them. Theater is literature to be performed.” Thanks to Hess, her work will finally be performed locally, if only briefly.

I urge you to attend The Heidi Chronicles, and I hope Hess’s production whets appetites for more of her work. (A revival of the show featuring Elizabeth Moss as Heidi opens on Broadway in March.) Wasserstein’s wish that her plays might make people want to go to the theater should be granted, especially for scripts like this one by and about women. Playwriting “like a girl” — at which she excelled — should be a creative act we seek out and cherish.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]