State College Community Theatre will bring the contemporary comedy “The Heidi Chronicles” to the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center in State College through July 31.
Written by Wendy Wasserstein and winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “The Heidi Chronicles” follows the character of Heidi Holland as she moves through life, from college to her career as an art historian. The play focuses on Heidi’s feminism during the 1970s, as well as her eventual disappointments in the 1980s. The show is a time capsule of female struggles during the mid-20th century, showing the progress of that generation amid laughs and tears.
“The Heidi Chronicles” cast features familiar SCCT performers, as well as cast members new to SCCT productions. Directing “The Heidi Chronicles” is Nigel Semaj Barnes, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in directing with a double major in acting at Lycoming College in Williamsport.
Playing the title character is Dana Hiyajneh, a recent graduate of State College Area High School, who is now Penn State student.
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“Heidi is a little timid at first, but she is still a very strong, independent, intelligent woman,” she said. “She becomes a very strong feminist by the end of the show.”
The plot follows Holland from high school in the 1960s to her career as a successful art historian more than 20 years later. The play’s main themes deal with the changing role of women during this time period.
“Though most of the characters are women, there are two important male characters — Peter Patrone, a gay pediatrician who is arguably Heidi’s best friend, and Scoop Rosenbaum, a magazine editor who marries and has many affairs, and with whom Heidi has a tense friendship,” Barnes said.
Holland meets Rosenbaum at a Eugene McCarthy rally, where he tries to woo her with knowledge and wit. She seems unenthused and lies about her name to Rosenbaum but is soon convinced as she realizes he is a very intelligent, attractive man despite his egotistical ways.
“The scene in which they first meet ends with a passionate kiss and night together,” Barnes said. “It is ambiguously implied that Heidi may have been a virgin at the time. Although they don’t work out romantically, the chemistry between Scoop and Heidi is insatiable and they go on to be lifelong friends.”
In preparation for the show, the cast started with a read through and three talks about feminism — what it means to them, why it is important and how it came to be.
“This discussion allows the actors insights and opinions to be heard so that I can successfully direct a production that everyone is going get something out of,” Barnes said.
“Personally I watched a documentary about this subject matter and it really helped me appreciate these women and all they fought for,” Hiyajneh said.
The Broadway version of “The Heidi Chronicles” has the ability to change the set from different time periods. Though SCCT doesn’t have that luxury, the actors are able to change the set in character.
“All of the transitions are scored by speeches, poems and songs by women — women such as Gloria Steinem, Michelle Obama, Oprah and more,” Barnes said. “With this, we are focusing on the effects the beginning waves of feminism had on today’s successes and tracing its roots back by highlighting the transitions with empowering words from empowering women through the ages.”
“There are not many shows that discuss feminism and other social uses such as the LGBTQIA community like our show does,” Hiyajneh said. “This show is fueled by strong women from all walks of life, and I find that very unique and exciting to be able to tell their stories.”
In Barnes’ mind, the world of the play and its themes are wildly similar to the world and its social issues today — almost terrifyingly similar. It’s a story that provides insight to the beginning of a movement that is still alive and fighting for equality today.
“This story begs to be told and is written with a beautiful sense of reality,” he said. “These themes and societal issues include, equal pay in the work place, the need to have more female representation in work fields that are dominated by men, the fight for LGBTQIA rights, and the overall fight for women to be seen equal as men.”
Barnes’ approach to “The Heidi Chronicles” is to focus on the successes of women and the fight for equality today and trace them back to the roots and beginnings of the feminist movement.
“The moments leading up to feminist movement today is an important and inspiring story — one I am truly excited to tell,” he said. “Women and men are equal. Feminism is just the fight for equal human rights and the sooner the world can get that through its head the closer we get to achieving equality.”
“I am so blessed to get to work with such a talented group of people every day,” Barnes continued. “Their characters are real and their emotions are real, because they have put themselves in their characters’ shoes. They will have you laughing, singing, crying and chanting along with them the entire way through.”
Besides the entertainment, Hiyajneh hopes that the stories and struggles that these women face will plant a little seed in everyone’s mind.
“Not everyone identifies as a feminist, but I do not see any reason why they shouldn’t,” she said. “A feminist is simply someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes and I hope our show makes a few more out there. I hope we open people’s eyes to how much it took to get where we are and how much it is going to take to get where we need to be.”
Barnes expects varied responses from the audience, but he also expects to see varied emotions as well — happiness, empathy, empowerment and even anger.
“There comes a time when you have to stop being so polite in certain fights,” Barnes said. “And the fight for the social, economic and political equality of the sexes has gone on for so long. It’s time to stop being polite. You can join the wave, or get knocked down by it.”
IF YOU GO
- What: “The Heidi Chronicles”
- When: 8 p.m. July 22-July 30, 2 p.m. July 30 and 3 p.m. July 31
- Where: Penn State Downtown Theatre Center, 146 S. Allen St., State College
- Info: www.scctonline.org