The commercials for the Broadway revival of The Heidi Chronicles, Wendy Wasserstein's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning look at the life of a modern woman, boast "Heidi has it all." While the commercial is referring to the play, cast and director, the colloquial phrase is also spoken frequently in the play itself, referring to the goal of the then-modern woman to achieve a balance between a career, a love life and children.
Portraying a woman in a turbulent time in history is nothing new to the star of the play, Elisabeth Moss, who, for eight years, portrayed ambitious advertising employee Peggy Olsen on the hit AMC series Mad Men. She is now playing Heidi Holland, the feminist art historian who first came to Broadway in 1989, introducing audiences to her career ambitions, feminist activism and romantic entanglements. As Heidi moves through history from the '60s to the '80s, she frequently considers the question if women can, in fact, "have it all."
When asked for her thoughts on the subject, Moss, a Golden Globe winner and four-time Emmy nominee, quickly answered yes, saying, "I think they can. I think the question of what it is to have it all is changing. That's funny because that's what we sort of fought for in the early days — to have it all. Now what does it mean if you don't want it all? What does it mean if you just want to work? What does it mean if you want to be a wife? What does it mean if you want to be a mom, and that's all you want to do?"
Along with the opportunity to "have it all" comes a pressure to "do it all," Moss said, adding, "I think that there's a certain backlash in a way, and a pressure that women feel because we got it all and now we've got to do it." The Heidi Chronicles marks a return to Broadway for Moss, who made her Main Stem debut in 2008, playing Karen in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow. She had long been familiar with Wasserstein's play, but, she said, it carries a different meaning for her at this point in her life.
"It's different when you read it knowing that you're doing to do it," she said. "It becomes a different thing. You read it in a much more personal way than you might have in your 20s. I think being 32, I have a different perspective on those questions."
One of the questions Heidi asks in the play is how women can and should support each other as their lives and relationships change. She addresses this when speaking at a college alumni function, where she describes the idealization of successful women and admits that she, an outwardly accomplished professional, feels abandoned by her friends.
"That speech is so beautiful. It makes me choked up just thinking about it," Moss said. "I really want to do it justice. It's one of the best speeches ever written for a woman, and it's so relevant and so present in our lives today — that pressure to do it all and that feeling of, 'I thought we were going to be in this together. What happened? Where did you all go? I thought we were going to fight for our rights together, and you've all abandoned me.'"
As Heidi ages, her relationships change drastically, especially with her friend Susan (Ali Ahn), and she gives voice to her struggles and loneliness in her speech.
"I think it's a very heartbreaking and truthful speech, and I really want to do it justice," Moss continued. "It's a climactic moment of the play. It's very pure and rich — and very judgmental of women, but at the same time, I think a lot of women know exactly what she was talking about... It's daunting and very scary, but I'm very much looking forward to figuring it out."
When it first debuted in the late 1980s, The Heidi Chronicles was considered one of the first feminist plays on Broadway. The 2015 revival, which is also being directed by a woman, Tony Award winner Pam MacKinnon, is presented in the midst of passionate dialogue about the small number of plays written by women that are being produced. In June 2014, an activist group called The Kilroys was formed to address the issue.
"I think that [Wasserstein] would be fascinated and really interested at the idea that a woman was directing a play," Moss said. "There's a line in the play where a woman asks [Heidi] if she's a feminist and she says, 'I'm a humanist.' Yes, it's wonderful that we have a female director and at the same time to just have a great director. And yes, Wendy was one of our most prolific female playwrights, if not the most prolific female playwright, but she was also just a great playwright, woman or man."
Having led audiences in a journey through the 1950-60s with Mad Men, and now through the 1980s with The Heidi Chronicles, will Moss continue her historical teachings up through present day? "A history of feminism presented by Elizabeth Moss, yes!" she said, laughing. "Wendy gave a lot of lectures in her life. Maybe as I get older I'll start my lecturing tour."