When The Heidi Chronicles opens on Broadway on March 19, more than 26 years will have passed since it debuted. Although it won a Pulitzer Prize and snagged a Best Play Tony, does this then-trendy 1989 play run the risk of being dated?
Says Pam MacKinnon, who’s directing this revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s first Broadway hit: “I wish it were dated.”
She’s right. Many women can still identify with Heidi Holland (Elisabeth Moss), who’s very much attuned to her job as an art historian but has an eye out for a husband with whom she can have children. Among the candidates are medical student Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham) and magazine publisher Scoop Rosenblum (Jason Biggs).
Alas, Peter is gay and Scoop marries someone he finds less intellectually threatening.
So Heidi loses precious time in becoming a mother. “I definitely have friends for whom biological clocks are real,” MacKinnon says. “Think of all the ‘either/or’ choices and decisions that some women have to make. The idea of ‘having it all’ can be burdensome.”
MacKinnon is cheered, however, by the great career advances women have made — and that includes in the world of Broadway. When The Heidi Chronicles first opened, no woman had ever won a Tony for Best Direction of a Play and none would win for nearly another decade. But since 1998, five women have won the prize, most recently MacKinnon herself for staging the 2013 Best Revival of a Play winner, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
“My Tony is in a glass case sitting next to an award I got in high school,” she says with a grin.
Those awards have company. MacKinnon had previously received an Obie for staging the Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park Off-Broadway in 2010. That led to her first Tony nomination in 2012, after the play had moved to Broadway.
“I benefited from the generation prior to mine who opened the doors: Zelda Fichandler, Emily Mann,” MacKinnon says, respectively citing the artistic directors of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.
Fichandler started in the 1950s and Mann in the 1980s. “And even though I’m not a baby boomer like Wendy, I’m now the oldest person in this room,” MacKinnon says, gesturing to the eight young assembled actors who are lunching nearby. “I’m a firm Gen X-er who went through my teen years during most of the ’80s. So some of this play is history to me.”
As a result, MacKinnon wishes that at least one older person could be in the room: Wasserstein herself, who died from lymphoma in 2006 at the age of 55. The two had only met in passing at a dinner party in 1997.
“Oh, how I’d love to have her here,” MacKinnon says. “Writers are invaluable in unlocking character and tone.”
Still, MacKinnon seems to be doing fine interpreting the play on her own. As she says, “I’m really enjoying revisiting a play that will make people say ‘Oh! That’s what they thought and felt back then!’ as well as having the distance to say ‘Oh! The world hasn’t changed as much as I thought.’”
She also sees it as a deeply personal play about friends who experience life as a group and as individuals. As she says, “Their being ambitious individuals keeps them from always keeping in touch with each other as these younger adults become older adults. As Heidi goes from 16 to her early forties, she learns that ‘Friends are your family too.’ I noticed that she only mentions her actual family once; Peter never does, and Scoop barely does.”
In the friends-are-family category, MacKinnon cites Maria Striar. “We met decades ago at the University of California–San Diego while I was studying political science and she was getting her MFA in acting. She became the cofounder and producing artistic director of Clubbed Thumb, a theater company where I’ve directed and whose board I chair.”
Wait — what was that about political science?
“And economics too,” she adds with a can-you-believe-it laugh. “I was on my way to getting a Ph.D. My dad was an academic, so in a way I was going into the family business.”
Then came the day in Madrid, where MacKinnon went to do predissertation research. “I literally could not get myself out of bed to go to the archives,” she says with a moan as the day comes back to her. “I realized that this path was not for me.”
Theater was — although that interest didn’t develop until she was at Clarence High School, about 18 miles northeast of Buffalo, New York. “I enrolled in a theater class, and that’s the only one I’ve taken — ever,” she stresses. “Part of the course was a production of Our Town, so I didn’t really have to audition to get the part of the stage manager.”
(That the role is almost always played by a man is an irony not lost on her.)
She doesn’t say that Our Town might have been chosen because it doesn’t require expensive scenery. Intense cuts in the school’s art budgets inspired one student to strat Clarence Young Actors. Soon MacKinnon and other interested parties were staging plays in a church.
Her fondest memory came during a George M. Cohan play. “I was always cast as the mother because I was tall,” she says with a sense of pride. “We did four performances, and in two of them, when my character had to faint, I got applause after I fell to the floor.”
And yet, MacKinnon abandoned theater in college. “I didn’t think it was serious enough. Then I realized that seriousness isn’t about the content of what you’re doing; it’s about your relationship to it.”
She doesn’t regret the time spent pursuing political science. “No education is for naught,” she insists. “My graduate program really taught me to read. Besides, the more you know, the more you can give a character. Theater is a verbal art, so I remain a big proponent of a liberal arts education.”
MacKinnon recalls phoning her parents to tell them that she was abandoning political science. “They were getting divorced, so there was already turmoil in the family, and I added to it,” she rues. “Maybe I felt, If you two can break something, then I can break something too — and maybe those things are all for the good.”
Apparently so. Not many directors stage two Broadway plays in the same season, but MacKinnon can make that claim. Her production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance became a late-2014 hit. It was her fifth collaboration with Albee, which started in 2002 with The Play About the Baby.
The Heidi Chronicles turns out to be a play about a baby too, which brings up a question MacKinnon knows is coming. “I did assume that being a mother would be in my future — and then I didn’t prioritize,” says the 47-year-old. “I think if you don’t need to have kids,” she says, choosing her words carefully, “maybe you shouldn’t go down that road.”
She has, however, been romantically linked with actor John Procaccino for the last eight years. (Coincidentally, he performed in the Broadway production of Wasserstein’s 1997 play An American Daughter.) “We met doing a show at Steppenwolf [Theatre Company in Chicago] when Amy Morton could no longer direct a play because she had to continue with August: Osage County when it hopped to New York.”
And speaking of New York: “The Heidi Chronicles is a so-called ‘New York play,’ but it doesn’t have a single character who’s a native New Yorker,” she says. “It reiterates that the city is a destination where younger people feel they can find themselves. On May 19, it’ll be 20 years since I moved here.”
She’s very glad she did. It’s nice to see, too, how much a woman can accomplish in less time than the lifespan of The Heidi Chronicles.