The title of Wendy Wasserstein’s first produced play, back in 1973, was Any Woman Can’t. Ironic, since the rest of her career could be described as ”Any Woman Can.” She won a Pulitzer Prize (one of many accolades for her 1989 masterpiece The Heidi Chronicles). She gave birth to a child at 48 years old. She raised Lucy Jane on her own. ”She was,” says Jamie Lee Curtis, who starred in a made-for-TV version of Heidi, ”the voice of a generation of women.” Wasserstein died Jan. 30 at the age of 55 from lymphoma.
A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the Yale School of Drama, Wasserstein first made a splash Off Broadway with the 1977 feminist coming-of-age comedy Uncommon Women and Others. ”I remember thinking, I have not read plays by a woman about women such as these ever before,” recalls Andre Bishop, her close friend and longtime producer. ”I just thought the seriousness of her preoccupations in her plays juxtaposed with this lovely warmth and tremendous sense of comedy was very special.” Indeed, Wasserstein’s works can best be described as tragicomic — heavy issues filtered through her trademark comic lens: In Isn’t It Romantic (1981), a single Manhattanite struggles with relationships while her well-meaning but meddling parents sing ”Sunrise, Sunset” into her answering machine. In The Heidi Chronicles, Heidi Holland contemplates the enduring yet unheralded legacy of women in art between locker-room breakdowns and break-ups with self-involved social climbers. In The Sisters Rosensweig (1993), a Brooklyn-born London-dweller turns 54 and forges a (possibly fleeting) connection with a faux furrier named Merv. An American Daughter (1997) put politics and the media through the wringer; Old Money (2000) filtered history and family values through contemporary celebrity-obsessed culture; even her most recent play, 2005’s Third, wrung laughs from close-to-her-heart issues like liberalism and feminism.
Off stage, friends describe her similarly: serious, and seriously funny. ”She had deeply held opinions and convictions,” says Bishop. ”Underneath the charm and the warmth and the laughter and the razor-sharp wit was a very hard-working woman who passionately believed in many things besides the power of theater — education for young people, the political scene.” Pal William Finn, who penned The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, calls her ”the smartest, funniest, and wisest person I’ll ever know.” Playwright Christopher Durang describes his friend and former classmate using, appropriately enough, Wasserstein’s own words: ”I’m reminded of the line in her Heidi Chronicles in which Peter says to Heidi, ‘I want to know you all my life.’ That’s what I wanted too, and indeed expected it. And I’m so sad that fate, or whatever, called her away so soon.”
Next page: A Wasserstein reading list