Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times, Monday, October 12th, 1998
Early in the fifth episode of 'What Ever,' the phenomenal eight-part, four -evening solo epic by Heather Woodbury now at the Steppenwolf Studioo, a woman named Violet describes the artistic vision that has preoccupied her for years. In her dry, sly and wonderfully eccentric WASP voice, Violet, who is nearly as old as the century itself, tells her down-to-earth housekeeper how she has long dreamed of creating a "Jazz Room"-a spacethat would evoke in design and in spirit the wild, improvisatory beauty she has always found in such music.
Violet knows her "Room" will never become a reality, but she senses that her voicing of the vision, even to a skeptical witness, gives it life.And when she is finished with her revery, she turns to her companion and asks for pickle slices and a few Saltines for lunch. The gorgeous ruefulness of this scene is nothing short of breathtaking in writing and delivery. And it is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg in this ground-breaking 'performance novel.'
Woodbury's remarkable, funny, outrageous, profoundly moving and often scarliy brilliant epic(in which each of the four evenings can stand alone), carries us from a rave party in Santa Cruz , to the mean streets of the East Village and Times Square in the early 1990's. It sweeps us back to the hippie days of the early 1970's. It infuses us with the memories of the two World Wars. And it makes us feel the momentum of the century by tossing us onto trains, planes, motorboats, and the dangerous front seats of vans whose drivers are still willing to pick up hitch hikers. And when the actress-writer can't get you there on a standard ticket, she sweeps you up and away on a broomstick ride.
That is precisely why it should come as no surprise when Violet is visited by the same ghost that haunts the 16-year-old Clove-the West Coast raver girl with a Gertrude Stein vocabulary and Vallley Girl vocalization. Of course when Violet hears the ghost's name, "cobain" (as in grunge rocker suicide, Kurt Cobain), she mistakes it for "coltrane" (as in jazz master John Coltrane). And there, in anutshell, you have Woodbury's inspired turn of mind.
If Woodbury, now 34, were just an endlessly observant writer, she would be an artist to treasure. If she were just a gifted performer and mind-boggling ventriloquist-capable of keeping in her head 10 hours of material and scores of voices of both sexes and all social classes, regions,and generations-that would be enough too. But on top of this she is an inventive linguist-or at least a prodigious synthesizer of everything from Shakespeare and grunge to media-speak and corporate control terminology.
Most crucially, Woodbury is a great humanist. "WHAT EVER," which involves nothing more than the actress, her miraculous voices and a couple of microphones, is a sort of one-woman "Nicholas Nickelby" for the millennium, a Whitmanesque vision of America at the end of the 20th century. There is talk of race, abortion, mental illness, war , and ecological disaster. But in the end, there also is redemption and many reconstructed lives.
In a program note, Woodbury says that she is seeking a 'commercial producer' for her show. Any movie mogul who doesn't jump on this piece is a fool. Woodbury may very well be Shakespeare's long-lost daughter-the one who had to wait 'til 2000 to be discovered."
More by Hedy Weiss on Heather: NEW ELIZABETHANS, Chicago Sun-Times, Sunday, October 18th, 1998