Friday, May 13, 2016

The Heidi Chronicles – One of the Season’s Very Best

Karlyn Weaver, Leslie Collins, Christie Quinn, and Ilana Watson.

By Tina Arth

I may not be the best judge of Twilight Theater Company’s current production of The Heidi Chronicles – there’s a significant conflict of interest (I spent the first part of last Thanksgiving myself stuffing myself silly with the family of one cast member, and ended the day with dessert and a drink or two at the home of another).  Furthermore, I inhabit the bull’s-eye of the show’s target audience, having come of age in the sixties as a bleeding heart liberal feminist – my first vote for president, in 1972, went to an African-American woman. Happily, there are some independent indices that attest to the play’s excellence – most notably a 1989 Pulitzer Prize (Best Play) and a 2015 Tony for Best Revival. For now, you’ll just have to take my word for it on the direction and cast – they are definitely up to the challenge of the script!

The Heidi Chronicles follows Heidi Holland from the mid-1960s through the 1980s, from naïve, slightly gauche but self-possessed high school student through a Ph.D. and faculty career as an art historian.  The heroine is at ground zero of the nascent feminist movement – as did many of us, she begins as an inadvertent feminist, drawn to the seemingly obvious concept that “all people deserve to fulfill their potential.” As the show progresses, Heidi moves from “Clean with Gene” privileged liberalism to a more radical feminism, but she is more of a grounded spectator than a fierce warrior - never really angry enough at men to burn her bra or anything else. Her friends are all over the map – including the loyal but mercurial Susan, furious Fran, insipid Lisa and Lisa’s clueless yuppie younger sister Denise. Her best male friend, the adorable Peter, turns out to be gay (we all had our first openly gay friend back then!). She spends two decades in an on-and-off relationship with her “bad boy,” Scoop Rosenbaum, a smarmy, superficially radical leftist with the soul (and ultimately life) of a conventional, aggressive entrepreneur. Along the way, Heidi sees the ideals of her youth gradually abandoned by their most outspoken advocates, and she is left to work through her disillusionment and find her own path to contentment.

It’s not easy to single out individual cast members for recognition, as the ensemble is uniformly strong, but there are a few real standout performances.  First, of course, there is Karlyn Weaver as Heidi. Weaver finds just the right combination of vulnerability and strength, bewilderment and intelligence – we cannot help but care about her. The scene where she throws aside any prepared script and speaks from the heart to her high school alumnae group is a heartbreaking and powerful illustration of her plight. Ilana Watson’s “Fran” captures the sloganeering, nuance-free anger of the early movement with a vengeance – “you either shave your legs or you don’t!” Lalanya Gunn (as talk show host April) is hilarious proof that some things never change – she is as thoughtlessly self-confident and perky as any currently syndicated news host. However, my favorite performance is Nichols Paine as gay pediatrician Peter Patrone.  He is snarky and sardonic, and maintains a careful balance between sensitive intellectualism (acceptable) and a whiny effeminacy (unacceptable, and liable to get him beaten up in the bad old days). His timing, smile, and self-effacing humor make him the perfect safe male friend, and Paine captures the role perfectly.

Music and visual representation of art are important in this production, and the lighting and sound designers (Robin Pair and Ilana Watson) contribute immeasurably to the continuously evolving ambience.  Chris Byrne’s costumes accurately capture the shifting fashion designs over the play’s 25-year span, helping the audience to keep track of the decades. Director Toner presents, at least for me, one of the most moving and well-executed shows of the season, and I hope audiences will find their way to this wonderful corner of North Portland.

Twilight Theater Company’s The Heidi Chronicles is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, May 21st with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 P.M.

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