Elizabeth Heffron is one of the friendliest playwrights you’ll ever meet. She laughs easily; and when she listens, it’s usually with the attentive, sensitive smile of an experienced mom. Pretty, relaxed, and engaged, she doesn’t seem in any way a troublemaker. But that’s only true if you haven’t seen her plays. “That’s what I was told by a literary manager I met at Hedgebrook,” she says, remembering a recent encounter at the Whidbey Island writers’ colony. “After we read one of my plays, she just looked at me and said, ‘But you seem like such a nice lady.’ ”
Her geniality is an effective cover for a writer whose work is rarely congenial. New Patagonia, presented at the Rep back in 2000, was about a man intent on staging his own funeral, or “death festival.” Six years later, ACT produced her award-winning Mitzi’s Abortion. “You might as well be open about it,” she says of the play’s title. She’s no less direct in discussing her latest work, Bo-Nita, a one-woman show opening next month at the Rep. In it, Hannah Mootz plays a 13-year-old girl being raised by a struggling single mother in St. Louis.
Heffron’s connection to the subject is partly autobiographical, she says. Growing up in St. Louis during the ’60s, her family was educated, but her parents were divorced. “Money wasn’t stable, and my home life was pretty turbulent,” she recalls. “I can remember things like walking to school wearing my Keds and realizing that they were split up the middle, but since I couldn’t talk to Dad about money without him getting angry, I just shored it up with some cardboard.”
Decades later, relocated to Seattle, Heffron believes that confronting social issues isn’t necessarily brave, just the basic response of an artist alive to our times. And that includes the touchiest of social issues: the growing divide between rich and poor and the shredding of the social safety net. (The few plays that do deal with such issues, like last season’s Good People at the Rep, create an almost palpable level of subscriber shock—you can hear it in the lobby at intermission.) Heffron features working-class characters in her plays because she doesn’t find much inspiration in the lives of stable middle-class Americans. “When I see another play about a bunch of New Yorkers having problems with their condo,” she says, “that’s not what interests me. The lives of working-class people are relatively underrepresented—and frankly contain a lot more conflict and drama.”
Still, the stage story of young Bo-Nita, as she is called in the play, is darker and much stranger than Heffron’s own life, with a large amount of the show taken up with a comedic shaggy-dog story involving a heart attack, a belly-dancer costume, and the roof of a Barbie Dream House. “My inspiration, in a way, were the Homer Price stories that I grew up with,” she says, referring to Robert McCloskey’s much-loved children’s books. “I call it Midwest magical realism.” The surreal comedy that Bo-Nita shares with us pushes right up to the boundaries of the possible, then is willing to push further in search of a great joke.
While the play’s absurdity is high-spirited, in other ways Bo-Nita’s circumstances are all too real. Her story includes episodes of domestic violence and abuse, and her world is one where the lack of a safety net forces people to depend on family as best they can. References are made to school and employment programs that promise much but are discontinued when the budget tightens; middle-aged men are told that the reason they’re still stocking grocery shelves is their own laziness, not a rigged economic system.
Heffron’s work defies the current truism that social-issue plays about contemporary American life are inevitably good-hearted but naive, feel-good pabulum for well-heeled audiences to feed their social conscience. “I do believe that plays can achieve social change,” says Heffron. “I don’t believe that people see a play about vegetarianism and go home and throw out every piece of meat in their freezer. It doesn’t happen like that. But what really opens the door to change is empathy for other people.” Referring to her next writing project, about the ’60s radical group The Weathermen, she says “The job is to make the people real, because the personal is political. You have to let the politics come second.”
In this, the script for Bo-Nita succeeds. Its protagonist/narrator is an impressive creation—matter-of-fact about the darkness in her world, but with a hilarious appreciation for just how weird things can get. Bo-Nita is tough and smart without being precocious. As she tells her story, you find yourself yearning for a way out for her. Not that her creator needs any such help. As Heffron prepares to move Bo-Nita to Portland Center Stage next year, and plans a new play about Hanford whistle-blowers, she says, “I want to make sure I get it right.” The more serious the topic, the more she’s likely to smile and laugh. As an artist with a sharp social conscience, she’s right in the thick of it. And that’s exactly where she wants to be.
SEATTLE REPERTORY THEATRE 155 Mercer St. (Seattle Center), 443-2222, seattlerep.org. $12–$30. Opens Oct. 18. Runs Fri.–Sun through Nov. 17.