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WENDY WASSERSTEIN | 1950-2006

Witty Voice of Feminist Self-Doubt

The popular playwright, whose 'Heidi Chronicles' won a Tony and a Pulitzer, used her comedic talent to expose unsettling themes.

January 31, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Wendy Wasserstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award and considerable popularity writing comic yet pointed plays and essays about the nagging choices and disappointments that many Baby Boom women encountered on the path to "having it all," died Monday. She was 55.

Wasserstein died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, according to Andre Bishop, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater. The cause of death was lymphoma.

"She was very much like the women she wrote the plays about," Bishop told The Times. "She connected to people in her plays in a personal way. I think that's what made her distinctive and I think a lot of people -- men and women -- felt as if they knew her through her work."

"Theater has lost its great human, hysterically funny voice. She could break your heart and be hilarious at it," said William Finn, the composer of "Falsettos," who called her death "an immeasurable loss."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 16, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Wasserstein obituary -- An obituary of playwright Wendy Wasserstein on Jan. 31 in Section A stated that she dedicated the play "An American Daughter" to columnists Michael Kinsley and Frank Rich. It was dedicated only to Kinsley.

Wasserstein secured her place in American theater with four consecutive plays, from "Uncommon Women and Others" (1977) to "The Sisters Rosensweig" (1993) that traced women's progress from college to middle age in the wake of the feminist revolution of the 1960s. Part of their strength and charm, Wasserstein's admirers said, was that they weren't sociological sketches of a generation, but highly personal stories anchored in her own experiences with family and friends.

The third in her informal series, "The Heidi Chronicles," won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play in 1989 -- but it raised some prominent feminist eyebrows, including those of Betty Friedan, for an ending in which a committed feminist art historian, feeling sad, isolated and let down by the movement's lost promise of enduring comradeship and solidarity, decides to adopt a baby.

"I'm just not happy. I'm afraid I haven't been happy for some time," protagonist Heidi Holland says near the end of a long, rambling, extemporaneous speech to her high school alumnae association, supposedly on the achievements and prospects of the women's movement, of which she is considered a distinguished exemplar. "I don't blame any of us. We're all concerned, intelligent, good women. It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together."

Wasserstein said she wasn't trying to discredit feminism, which she regarded as a life-changing inspiration, but to write what seemed most truthful for her character. However, she wanted to open eyes to the trap of trying to "have it all."

"The women's movement, the movement that said, 'Your voice is worthwhile,' is the only reason I feel like a person," Wasserstein told People magazine in 1990. "But what still needs to change is that women shouldn't beat themselves up for their choices -- for being a mother or a single mother, or being a playwright, or being beautiful or not being beautiful. It's important that there isn't one ... slot."

Her career took off in 1977 with "Uncommon Women and Others," begun while she was earning her 1976 master's degree at the Yale School of Drama. It assessed the glowing yet uncertain hopes of a group of friends during and after college at Mount Holyoke, the elite women's school where Wasserstein, the youngest of four children in a wealthy, high-achieving New York family, earned her bachelor's degree in 1971.

"When we're 25, we're going to be pretty ... incredible," says Rita, one of the play's brainy and attractive collegiate clique. "All right, I'll give us an extra five years for emotional and career development. When we're 30, we're going to be pretty ... amazing." By play's end, six years after graduation, the former dorm mates have gotten an inkling that the path to fulfilling careers and relationships may not be quite so easy, and the timetable for an incredible life has been pushed back to 40 or 45.

The show was noteworthy for its cast of future stars who were then unknown: Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry and Swoosie Kurtz (Meryl Streep, Wasserstein's friend from Yale, took over for Close when the play was redone for a PBS broadcast in 1978).

"My life has been more amazing than I thought it would be," Wasserstein told the Independent of London in 1996. "I've been inordinately lucky."

Besides being an industrious writer, Wasserstein was an avid traveler and socializer, and a woman whose need to nurture led her on an eight-year journey through fertility treatments that culminated in motherhood at the age of 48. She was known for her self-deprecating humor, sharp wit and an enthusiastic, outgoing nature that came across in her numerous lectures and TV talk show appearances, in addition to her plays and her frequent essays for newspapers and magazines, which are collected in the books "Bachelor Girls" and "Shiksa Goddess (Or, How I Spent My Forties)."

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