Theaters Bring Wasserstein to New Audiences

Three Jewish sisters from Brooklyn reunite in London to celebrate the oldest’s 54th birthday in Wendy Wasserstein’s 1992 play, “The Sisters Rosensweig.” As the sisters catch up, the drama lies not in their struggles, but in the unnerving reality that achieving their lifelong goals has not made them happy.

The play was regarded by Tony Velella of The Christian Science Monitor as at times “very funny,” at other times “one-dimensional.” David Richards wrote that the characters’ glib remarks failed to address the play’s central questions. Mel Gussow, in his 1992 New York Times review, praised Wasserstein as “the most astute of commentators” in dealing with cultural paradoxes, her writing “reflexively in touch with the times.”

Now, it will be up to new audiences to settle on the enduring themes of these plays – or decide there are none.

Wasserstein won a Tony and a Pulitzer for “The Heidi Chronicles,” a story about balancing motherhood with a successful career in 1989. Her domain has since been the world of the bright career woman bearing with an unprecedented range of choices.

“That’s a thing I hear a lot of women still talk about: What it is to have it all,” said Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, executive director of the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y., where “Rosensweig” ended a four-and-a-half-week run in February. “They still wrestle with that feeling of having a family or having a career. They still wrestle with that feeling of superiority, and yet inferiority. I don’t know if it’s going to be timeless – I don’t have a crystal ball – but I do think that the play will be relevant for a while.”

Several women approached Mancinelli-Cahill after the show  to tell her how the sisters reminded them of themselves. To her, that meant the play still resonated. “So many people told me the sisters’ dynamic, in particular, was something they had experienced,” she said. “The three sisters were extremely different, all successful in their own sort of niche, and that seemed to strike a chord.”

At the Ringwald, patrons debated the relevance of the play at a talkback after the stage reading. “It invigorated this discussion about the work, about Wendy Wasserstein, and it really polarized women in the audience from that generation,” said Jamie Warrow, the theater’s executive director. “Some women were like, ‘I love this play, it reminded me of when I was in college. I get this character. I had friends like this.’ And the others were like, ‘I don’t care about these women. Their concerns were so mundane.’ People were divorced from the idea that it was really a struggle back then.”The Ringwald Theatre in Michigan and the Riveters acting troupe in Louisiana both produced “Uncommon Women and Others” early this year. The 1977 play, Wasserstein’s first to garner serious attention from critics, follows a group of friends from their last year at the playwright’s alma mater, Mount Holyoke College, to a rushed reunion. Six years forward, most of these women have found professional success but not partnership. They wonder if they can have both.

One character, Muffet, is expected to marry after graduation. She instead decides to support herself. Her story struck some audience members as trite. “Some people really related to it, and other people found it to be unrelatable because that’s a no-brainer nowadays,” said Warrow. “So what if you don’t get married? Go get a job. That’s what you do.”

Is there a need for a modern retelling of “Uncommon Women”? Warrow is staunchly against it. The audience, however, was split. “A lot of people were like, ‘I don’t know what “The Bell Jar” is, I don’t know who Germaine Greer is.’ And that was a cultural commentary, too.”

If some members of the Ferndale crowd found the play outdated, a theatre troupe in Lafayette, La., found it shocking, even combustive.

Kyla Cormier, 31, is a high school teacher and member of the Riveters, a theater troupe set on raising awareness about contemporary social issues. She played Rita, the brazen would-be writer looking for her Leonard Woolf, during the troupe’s two productions of “Uncommon Women.” Cormier remembers some patrons walking out because of a bawdy Rita moment. Her parents and grandparents decided not to attend because of her character’s racy lines.

Still, the troupe never considered toning it down. “In fact, we heightened it whenever we performed it, and people were very affected,” said Cormier. “I had friends who cried at the end of it, some of those women who I went to school with, who are just now starting to have babies. I have one friend who gave up a full ride Ph.D to have a child.”

Charlee Halphen Swain directed the first 3-week run at the Duchamp Opera House last April. “I can’t see it ever not being produced,” she said. The Dramatists Play Service received over 100 licensing applications for Wasserstein plays in 2009 and saw them range from 60-80 over the last two years.

Before the premiere, Swain and Cormier read Julie Salamon’s 2011 biography of the late playwright, “Wendy and the Lost Boys.” Salamon herself initially wondered if her subject could sustain three years’ work. She soon found herself fascinated.

“It’s almost as though her work became a way for her to explain what was happening to her and the world around her,” she said. That world has come and gone, but the connection isn’t lost. “I think that the people who responded immediately to Wasserstein’s plays in real time identified with the issues she was grappling with, in the way she identified them. People today may identify with them in some way, but it will be different.”

The Ringwald Theatre will continue its yearlong Wasserstein series with “Heidi Chronicles” in May, followed by “Rosensweig” and “Third” in September and December.

“There are always going to be universal themes in her work,” Warrow said. “A lot of the themes represented, in my opinion, are dated. But they are valuable because they provide a platform for discussion of where we’ve been, where we’re going and who we can be.”