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'Happiness' is found in unlikely places in the MAT's new one-woman show
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Jan. 25 and 26 and 2 p.m. Jan. 27
Where: The Millibo Art Theatre, 1367 Pecan St.
Tickets: $15; 465-6321, themat.org
Something else: Harpham will lead an acting workshop at the MAT from 1 to 3 p.m. Jan. 26. The cost is $30.
She didn’t want to tell this story.
Heather Harpham’s one-woman play “Happiness,” which opens Thursday and runs through Jan. 27 at the Millibo Art Theatre, dances, muses and slices into the most painful time of her family’s life.
Her daughter had been born with the inability to create red blood cells. When the girl was 3, Harpham and her husband faced a horrible and hopeful choice: to have their daughter live the rest of her life in and out of hospitals or do a profoundly risky transplant operation, using their son’s stem cells.
Although Harpham was a longtime actress, dancer and storyteller, the last thing she wanted to do was turn that moment into a play.
“Having been through that, and having witnessed children who were very ill, many of whom didn’t make it, I didn’t want a thing to do with telling that story. It was such a painful thing,” she says during a phone interview from her home in New York City.
Instead, she worked on a play loosely inspired by her experiences.
“I thought I’d do a piece about the fragile nature of the body and life -- and it just wasn’t coming together,” she says. “It felt like I was skirting around the work I should be doing.”
Ultimately, as emotionally torturous as it was, she decided that their time at Duke Medical Center was an important story to tell.
“I wanted to honor the children by capturing some things about their experiences, celebrating the pieces of them we got to know, and also celebrating the incredible power of rejuvenation … because some of the kids did make it.”
Harpham and her husband and daughter got to know these children as they lie in bed, often with ventilator tubes in their mouths and IVs in their arms.
Yet her piece leaps with movement and dynamic physical expression.
“It’s a story that’s wanting to honor and respect who they are or were before they were kids lying in this bed,” she says. “Also, I want to give physicality to what they’re going through internally. It’s the closest I can give to a visceral experience of what the kids went through. Movement is one way to amplify an emotional experience. The audience can then participate in that experience through a kind of kinesthetic empathy.”
Harpham knows what you’re thinking: “My god, a play about dying children. This has got to be depressing.”
That’s one reason she called the play “Happiness,” because it stresses that even amid the saddest of circumstances, joy works its way through the cracks.
That’s also why she infused the play with wild flights of fancy: a visit to purgatory led by Lana Turner, a debate about the nature of reality with Gandhi.
“I hope it’s ultimately enriching and cathartic. I’ve put a lot of care in creating a piece that treats the material with a sense of what people can tolerate,” she says. “It’s sad, but it’s bearable.”