Actress gives 'Heidi' new shadings

February 14, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

In the key scene in Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," the title character delivers a speech on the subject "Women, Where Are We Going?" The scene is a turning point for Heidi, who -- despite a successful career as an art historian -- suddenly realizes she cannot answre the question.

The scene also encapsulates the theme of this 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which is receiving a largely commendable production -- its Maryland premiere -- at the Spotlighters, under the direction of Miriam Bazensky.

Heidi's journey reflects the experiences of almost an entire generation of educated, middle-class women who achieved maturity during the first full flowering of the women's movement. It's no coincidence that Heidi's professional specialty is women artists, even though she refers to herself as a humanist, not a feminist.

When Amy Jo Shapiro delivers Heidi's speech, the sense of sadness and confusion that overtakes this bright, witty character is palpable. Heidi may feel abandoned by the women's movement, but she is also belatedly coming of age and learning to order her priorities. Shapiro portrays Heidi as more uptight and edgy than her counterparts in the Broadway and touring productions, but she makes the new shadings work.

Heidi's journey to adulthood isn't a solo voyage; during the play's quarter-century time span, her three closest friends also struggle to grow up. Glenn Klavans isn't slick enough as smug, chauvinistic Scoop Rosenbaum, an excessively competitive journalist whom Heidi misguidedly falls for. And Edie Catto acts at too high pitch as Heidi's oldest friend -- a woman who switches identities with every new trend.

But Tom Nolte shines as a homosexual pediatrician with a caustic sense of humor and a sure sense of himself. Nolte's scenes with Shapiro achieve a level of empathy that rises above everything else on stage. They almost make you forget that the script -- Pulitzer Prize or not -- tends to be structurely fragmented and the minor characters, most of whom are multiply cast, are little more than caricatures.

"The Heidi Chronicles" isn't easy to stage. Not only do its numerous scenes and extensive time frame require a plethora of set and costume changes, but Heidi also delivers two art lectures, illustrated by slides -- a bit of a trick in a theater-in-the-round. Director Bazensky and company pull this off with the occasional aid of superfluous ad-libbing, but they do pull it off, and that's no slight achievement.

By the way, it is proof of the play's effectiveness as propaganda that the theater has mounted a lobby exhibit of works by local women. Seeing the work of women on stage and on exhibit is at least a partial answer to: "Women, Where Are We Going?" Heidi would be reassured.

'The Heidi Chronicles'

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.;

matinees Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Through March 1.

Where: Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St.

Tickets: $8 and $9.

Call: (410) 752-1225.

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