Mad Men’s Peggy Hits Broadway: Elisabeth Moss in ‘The Heidi Chronicles’
Elisabeth Moss, now starring in the revival of the Pulitzer-winning Heidi Chronicles, talks about the landmark feminist play and drops a few hints about where we leave Peggy Olson.
The last we saw of her, Mad Men’s Peggy Olson was kicking ass with her Burger Chef boardroom pitch, but that doesn’t mean she’s fully settled in to her new power role—or that she ever really does, according to Elisabeth Moss, who portrays her. And now the end is nigh for AMC’s ’60s-set advertising world drama. Will Peggy find career fulfillment? Land something approaching a great guy? See her child again? Succeed? Come out on top?
“I think she has grown. Is she done yet? No, not by any means. I think that if she were, it wouldn’t be a very interesting final season. She’s still got a little ways to go,” Moss tells The Daily Beast. “I look forward to everyone seeing it [the finale] and judging whether or not she does. How’s that for a big dodge of your question?” she adds with a giggle.
Moss is disarmingly charming and unpretentious, evident even in our 10-minute phone call. She, like every other cast member of Mad Men, is notoriously tight-lipped about the last episodes of the revered AMC series, which will begin airing on April 5. But she has no problems comparing her iconic Peggy Olson and her latest role as Heidi Holland, the protagonist of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles.
The landmark feminist play, which premiered in 1988, has its Broadway revival opening night tonight, Thursday, at the Music Box Theatre. It chronicles the life of Heidi Holland from a high school dance in 1965 to 1989 (present-day at its first run), when she is an art historian specializing in curating and publicizing female artists.
Joan Allen originated the role of the evolving Heidi—and earned a Tony nomination. The play follows as Heidi comes into her own as a feminist, as she navigates professional and personal challenges.
It would be easy based on the overlapping time periods to assume that Peggy and Heidi are similar in terms of mindset, goals, and personality. However, Heidi is younger than Peggy by five to 10 years, a critical gap during this swatch of American feminist history, and Moss acutely recognizes those differences.
Moss sees Peggy as a “previous generation” to Heidi. “She sort of bumps her head against the glass ceiling without realizing there’s a glass ceiling,” while Heidi is “an actual feminist, a protester,” Moss says.
“I think part of Peggy’s problem is that she’s very compartmentalized. She’s not very aware of herself sometimes, and she has a naiveté that she never really loses, which I loved playing,” says Moss. “But Heidi is different. She is incredible self-aware. She is much more self-realized than Peggy was.”
Even though Heidi much more firmly identifies with feminism and is grounded in certain principles of equality between men and women, it doesn’t mean that she completely drinks the Kool-Aid or, hell, even knows what she wants to be doing or saying. Wasserstein wrote Heidi as a deliciously complicated character, perhaps in part because Heidi is considered at least somewhat autobiographical.
Over two acts and two-and-a-half decades, the audience is privy to critical snippets of Heidi’s life in 13 scenes, moments that shed light on her personal choices and the way she builds or severs or complicates the relationships in her life. Heidi is in each and every one of them, which is why, as Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon tells The Daily Beast, “You can’t really do The Heidi Chronicles without a really exciting Heidi.”
There are certain things we never see, such as Heidi’s biological family. Instead, The Heidi Chronicles showcases Heidi’s evolution through her interactions with her friends, which is a comment in and of itself on the modern family.
We meet only one of Heidi’s lovers, Scoop Rosenbaum, played wonderfully by Jason Biggs in a master of the universe role that goes against his type of the sweet and slightly irritating nebbish. Scoop’s future as a potential husband fades relatively fast, though his complicated sexual chemistry with Heidi forces important questions about how we choose or reject our partners.
Decades before Sheryl Sandberg attempted to articulate the struggle between personal and professional choices for women in Lean In, Wasserstein was tackling these head-on with tremendous heart and a sharp tongue.
Heidi captures the problematic gray zone best in one of the play’s most famous lines in a speech before her fellow alumnae of her all-girls private high school in 1986. During the four-page monologue, which is one of the last scenes of the play, Heidi reflects on a varied collection of women in her gym locker room--young mothers, “twenty-seven-year-old hotshots,” a “naked gray-haired woman extolling the virtues of brown rice and women’s fiction”--and the pang of judgment she feels from and toward these women:
“I’m embarrassed —no, humiliated —in front of every woman in that room. I’m envying women I don’t even know. I’m envying women I don’t even like…. It’s just that I feel stranded. 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.”
Moss absolutely nails it. From self-deprecating stumbling through to bracing honesty, she conveys to the audience that Heidi is undergoing a major self-realization, even if she herself can’t articulate the final outcome. Moss said it was the scene she found most challenging. “You don’t have anyone to act off of. It’s just you, but I discovered I have the audience.” That’s an understatement. It’s a breathtaking moment.
Not all the scenes flow so well: The opening scene, in which Moss’s Heidi faces the audience as an art history professor at Columbia addressing her class, felt a little choppy and unnatural. Another scene that felt a bit off was Heidi’s visit to a women’s conscious-raising rap group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1970. MacKinnon actually said this scene was one of the hardest. “It’s a tricky scene to find that through line from funny to gravity,” she said.
Heidi starts off as the “observer” who comes with her high school—and ultimately, lifelong—friend, Susan, who regularly attends the group. Heidi is wary of Fran, the pugnacious lesbian, Jill, the freethinking housewife, and Becky, a confused high school girl who stumbles into the group seeking help.
Going from satire to serious felt uneasy. It didn’t help that Susan, played by Ali Ahn, felt a little over-the-top, like a Sex and The City Samantha Jones caricature. (Broadway geek side note: Kim Cattrall actually did play this role in the 1995 television production of The Heidi Chronicles and two other Sex and the City actors, Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon, were in the original production, with the latter replacing the former for the Broadway run.)
However, unlike Sex and the City, many of Heidi’s most important interactions are with men, rather than women. Thankfully, these scenes between Moss and Biggs and Moss and her best friend Peter Patrone, played charismatically and sensitively by Bryce Pinkham (fresh off a Tony nomination for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), are perfect.
One kiss between Moss and Biggs has an astonishing, complex chemistry. Meanwhile, Pinkham doesn’t merely steal every scene he’s in, but gilds it with an extra layer of depth, whether levity or gravity.
“It’s funny. If you tell the story of a strong woman, especially if she’s feminist—which I assume all women are—[Moss chuckles a little], the most interesting thing is their relationship to the men in their lives,” Moss says. “Because it’s who they are either in competition with or come against as a problem or who they are inspired by or, as in Peggy’s case, working with.”
When I ask Moss what her favorite Peggy scene is, Moss says it’s when Peggy leaves Sterling Cooper Draper Price in the fifth season and says goodbye to her mentor, Don Draper. “That was a real moment of her becoming the person that he wanted her to be and that’s exactly what she says. This is what you made me, a person who can do this.”
The Heidi Chronicles, too, ends with Heidi not necessarily joyful, but embracing her choices and making it clear to the audience that she is a “person who can do this.” It closes with Moss singing Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” in a light, sweet voice that works with the steely resolve Heidi displays throughout the play to complete her complicated dynamic personality.
“Maybe, just maybe things will get better,” Heidi tells Scoop in one of the final lines of the play. She is speaking about the potential for more equal and balanced romantic relationships between men and women, but it applies to every aspect of the choices men and women make throughout their lives, professionally and personally. It’s a cautious optimism that goes against my pessimistic, neurotic mindset, but hearing Moss say it I actually believed her.
The Heidi Chronicles is at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street