Wendy Wasserstein was known for her sense of humor, intelligence and keen observations of American society and contemporary women, in particular.
She died at age 55 from lymphoma in 2006, but left behind a trove of sharply written plays, including “The Heidi Chronicles,” which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards (including best play), and “The Sisters Rosensweig,” which opened in Seattle in 1992 and was performed on Broadway between 1993 and 1994.
South Coast Repertory is concluding its 2017-18 season with “The Sisters Rosensweig,” which officially opens this weekend and runs through June 2.
The play, set in London in the early 1990s, focuses on three sisters. Sara is an über-successful international banker whose 54th birthday is the reason everyone’s getting together in her Queen Anne’s Gate apartment. Gorgeous hosts a radio advice program, and Pfeni is a globe-trotting journalist.
The play explores the sisters’ relationships and reflects a world in crisis and in flux.
“It’s striking to me, and striking to audiences, how much the politics have come around again,” said Casey Stangl, director of the SCR production. “The play coincides with the fall of the Soviet Union, and people are talking about Russia again, and also about a changing world order. There’s rampant anti-Semitism, the rise of nationalism in Europe — it’s fascinating the things they’re dealing with, we’re reckoning with right now.”
And while the #MeToo or Time’s Up movements didn’t exist in the early ’90s, some of those issues are addressed in the Wasserstein comedy.
“In terms of women determining their own future, and having a say in the culture, and being in real positions of authority, and effecting change and affecting their own lives, these are things we’re still struggling with, 25 years after the play was written,” Stangl said. “It feels like the needle has not moved forward very much at all.”
In this production, Amy Aquino plays Sara (Rosensweig) Goode, Eleanor Reissa plays Gorgeous Teitelbaum and Betsy Brandt is Pfeni Rosensweig. Other cast members include Matthew Arkin, Bill Brochtrup, Emily James and Riley Neldam.
Aquino, a longtime TV, film and stage actress who currently appears in Amazon Studios’ “Bosch,” says she loves the “extraordinary journey” her character Sara goes through in the play.
“It’s a crisis of the soul — it’s not a career crisis; it’s not a health crisis,” Aquino said. “But she just gets challenged about her own identity, and how she defines herself, and to what extent she finds a way to love herself and her heritage.”
That heritage would be the sisters’ Jewish background, and what that means in a time when there are still memories of the Holocaust, remnants of oppression and feelings of self-doubt and self-hatred. Aquino’s character, Sara, has dropped her maiden name Rosensweig in favor of the less ethnic-sounding Goode, her second husband’s surname. Wasserstein once commented that this play is “about being Jewish.”
“I love her strength and her comfort in herself,” Aquino continued about her character. “I really love her struggle, because it’s a very real struggle for a lot of women, and especially a lot of women at that time.”
Aquino knew Wasserstein personally, having appeared in her plays “The Heidi Chronicles” on Broadway and “Third” at Lincoln Center.
“She was a delightfully warm and sweet woman,” Aquino said. “She was outrageously smart, but never mean. She was very, very generous and always positive. I’m sure that she was bad in a lot of places in her life. But she always brought that wonderful, crinkly smile.”
According to Aquino and other sources, Wasserstein was struggling with major health issues while writing “Sisters,” which came directly after “The Heidi Chronicles.” “Sisters” won the Outer Critics Circle Awards for best Broadway play and best actor, actress and director. It was nominated for multiple Tony Awards, including best play, and won the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in American Theatre.
“This play came after ‘The Heidi Chronicles,’ but I would venture to say this play is going to end up being the one that really lasts,” Stangl said. “It takes itself into the ages. It has a sense of longevity to it. It’s funny, warm and surprisingly relevant in our search for female identity.”
If You Go
What: “The Sisters Rosensweig”
When: Through June 2; performance times vary
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $23
Information: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org.
Richard Chang is a contributor to Times Community News.