Elizabeth Heffron credits her new play “Bo-Nita,” which has its world premiere Wednesday at Seattle Repertory Theatre, with helping to save her life.
As the Seattle playwright tells it, in 2009 she was toiling at the University of Washington on a workshop version of “Bo-Nita.” The script depicts a plucky adolescent girl coping with a chaotic upbringing in the household of a financially struggling single mom “and a bunch of weird men in their lives,” describes Heffron.
When student actors in the show fell ill with strep throat, Heffron got herself checked out. No strep. But the doctor spotted a previously undetected Stage 3 cancerous tumor in her throat.
Thanks to a grueling initial regimen of radiation, chemotherapy and experimental drugs, Heffron has been cancer-free for several years. And now, with one younger daughter enrolled at the UW and an older one working as a youth counselor, she is busier and more prolific than ever.
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“I’ve allowed myself to get more serious about playwriting and getting things done,” says Heffron, a sunny, unpretentious and energetic woman in her mid-50s. “I made more room in my life for what I needed to do.”
It’s a long list.
Heffron teaches theater classes at Cornish College of the Arts and works with high-school kids in A Contemporary Theatre’s (ACT) Young Playwrights Program. She’s completing a master’s of fine arts in playwriting at Virginia’s Hollins University, having spent summers in residence there. She recently had a two-year term as a member of Seattle Rep’s select Writers Group of Northwest dramatists.
But her prime priority is that stack of scripts she’s avidly crafting.
Heffron says “Bo-Nita” (which started as an ensemble work and is now a solo play enacted at the Rep by Hannah Mootz), is “not necessarily my own story, but it parallels my life in some ways. It just flies in a lot of different directions.
“It’s about why we need a social safety net,” she explains. “Bo-Nita is a 13-year-old in St. Louis who has been through a lot. Her mother works hard but can’t keep it all together without (government) help.
“But the thing about 13-year-olds is they have nothing in their experience to compare their lives to. Bo-Nita is stuck in this tough world, but she’s very bright and resilient. This is just her life, so she’s telling you what’s going down.”
Heffron’s own childhood was not as rough as Bo-Nita’s, but it was offbeat, low-budget and bicoastal. Early on she was raised by her divorced mother and grandmother in St. Louis. Later she lived with her counterculture dad in Northern California.
Bo-Nita endures some dark, violent times. But Heffron’s thoughtful plays are often streaked with zany, irreverent humor — even when they address serious social issues.
Take the award-winning “Mitzi’s Abortion,” which debuted at ACT in 2006. It compassionately portrays a young, working-class military wife, carrying a baby with no cerebral cortex and no chance of postpartum survival. Mitzi defies family pressures by seeking to terminate her pregnancy. But into this provocative drama Heffron also weaves comical, otherworldly visitations from such figures as St. Thomas Aquinas, who speculates on when a fetus gets a soul.
“Mitzi’s Abortion” has been staged around the U.S., and Heffron considers it more relevant than ever to the national abortion-rights debate. “Now there are states banning the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions. I would never have guessed it would get so restrictive, even when the health of the mother is endangered like Mitzi’s is.”
As “Bo-Nita” hits the boards under the direction of Paul Budraitis (it will also get a 2014 mounting at Portland Center Stage), Heffron is hard at work on other plays.
One is the “The Weatherman Project,” cowritten by Seattle author Kit Bakke and based on the latter’s experiences as a radical anti-war activist. With help from a Sloan Foundation grant, Heffron has also begun a series of plays about the history of nuclear power. The first, “Portugal,” focuses on the decommissioned, highly contaminated nuclear production site at Hanford.
Heffron, who resides on Capitol Hill with her performer-writer husband, Matt Smith, is clearly enjoying her current good health and creative surge.
“I love being 56,” she reflects. “When my kids were young, I couldn’t do as much. Now I’m doing so much more, but I’m able to give myself a break. So I didn’t get that done today — OK, I’m not going to have a nervous breakdown about it.
“I’m writing with more purpose, but I’m also a little more relaxed.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org