Wendy Wasserstein, who died Monday of lymphoma at the age of 55, was a successful, committed commercial playwright — Lillian Hellman with a sense of humor. She became a voice of her generation when her Yale School of Drama graduate thesis, Uncommon Women and Others, was produced Off Broadway in 1977 and then filmed for PBS with a cast that included Meryl Streep and Swoosie Kurtz. But she will be remembered for 1989’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Heidi Chronicles, whose uncompromising, if romantically beleaguered, art-historian heroine wonders where all the feminists have gone. “It’s just that I feel stranded,” she tells an alumnae group of “concerned, intelligent, good women” who are her peers. “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.”
In The Heidi Chronicles and other works, Wasserstein, who became a single mother at 48, addressed both the achievement and the melancholy of female boomers who came of age around 1970, rejecting their mothers’ goals and then wondering whether they’d thrown out the baby with the bath water. She produced two books of humorous essays, Bachelor Girls and Shiksa Goddess, as well as the screenplay for the film The Object of My Affection; a novel, Elements of Style, will come out this spring. But Wasserstein made her boldest mark in the theater, where her box-office receipts, as much as her plays, made a feminist statement. In addition to winning the Pulitzer, a Tony, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Heidi, she was nominated for a Tony for 1993’s The Sisters Rosensweig, which the Huntington Theatre Company successfully revived in November. Wasserstein’s most recent work, Third, was produced last fall at Lincoln Center.
Critics have asserted that Wasserstein’s warm wit and deft one-liners sometimes tripped up her serious intent. But it was part of her achievement that she addressed feminist issues with such smart good humor when stridency was the voice du jour.
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