One Woman's Struggles With Fertility, Adoption and Grief

All the world's a stage. In our lives we play many parts, like actors on the stage. A rather famous playwright once said as much. What happens, though, when you gather the many parts of one woman's life, staging them for all to see in a single one-hour performance?

It's a challenge commonly taken up by the contemporary one-act form -- so often autobiographical, condensed in time and action, and emotionally charged for audiences. And with a passion that shares much with contemporary female-powered work such as Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, Kelly Haramis's one-woman show Double Happiness meets that challenge, and then some.

Double Happiness offers an intimate portrait of Kelly as herself, recounting a momentous event in her life: the adoption of her daughter from China, a long process that ends joyously. But happiness comes at a cost. Kelly's mother, the matriarch of her family and a source of encouragement on her long road to motherhood, is struck and killed by a car while in a crosswalk in small-town Pennsylvania. Though Kelly's father meets the newly adopted baby, as well as the surprise second child (the "double happiness" of the title) from an unexpected pregnancy, he too dies rather unexpectedly, only a few years later.

"I'm reliving a lot of stages of my life on stage," says Haramis, accounting for her play's breadth and intensity, and its whirlwind moves from life to loss and back again. Yes, Double Happiness is the story of one woman's struggles with fertility, the choice she and her husband make to adopt a child from China, the hoops through which they must jump in order to be deemed suitable parents, but it's also the story of Kelly's losing both parents in a short time, and of balancing intense grief with the joyous new challenges of motherhood.

"Everyone can relate to a different aspect of my show," Haramis says, "because it touches on so many different themes."

The show debuted in four sold-out nights in Chicago late spring 2012, was then peformed at the Orlando Fringe Festival in 2013; and it arrives next week for a 6-show run at the FRIGID New York Festival in New York City.

Behind this one-woman show, there's the story of how it emerged from the world of improv. Formerly a writer and editor for the Chicago Tribune, Haramis chronicled her efforts to adopt a child through a popular column, "Journey to Adoption," in the paper's Sunday style section, "Q", from 2005 through 2007. She received hundreds of letters from around the world, and her daughter, Athena, would be recognized on the street after her arrival in the US.

In 2009, Kelly returned to her first love, the theater, taking classes at the Second City conservatory and iO Chicago. After an exercise at iO in which Haramis was asked to speak of something personal -- she told the story of her struggles with fertility and the adoption -- her instructor said, "That's a one-woman show." He was quite insistent "And I'm going to hold you to it."

Haramis was surprised by how much of her personal story resonated not only with women, but also with men, some of them quite young. That's one of the lessons Haramis takes from her experience with this kind of theater. "Personal stories are powerful because so many people can relate to them. Art imitates life, and life imitates art."

Her director, David Knoell, a graduate of the Second City Directing Program, conceived the idea for the set. "You have to speak the entire thing," he suggested, "in a children's messy playroom, the child's toys serving as props." Such choices now seem inevitable, as somehow Kelly manages to transport us imaginatively to China while standing, as it were, in the playroom of her soon-to-be child.

The adoption process isn't on trial in this play, but Double Happiness does highlight some important parenting questions. It makes audiences aware, says Haramis, of "the hoops you jump through in adoption to become a parent." There's the home study, the visits from the social worker -- including an 8-hour "ride-along" in which the social worker accompanies you every minute of the day.

"You have to prove you can be a parent." Haramis respects the process -- if only to make sure "some weirdo is not going to adopt a child" -- but she sheds light in this play on how little thought many of us give to the commitment to parenting ahead of time.

China too is part of this story. Kelly has an ear for the ironies of cultural encounter. During the scene in which she receives the photograph of her future daughter, she steps toward the audience, holds up a picture of the Chinese infant and declares, "Everybody said she was beautiful, and that she looked like me."

Kelly and her writer husband hastily encounter the country -- Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall -- during the whirlwind journey to meet their daughter in the Jiangxi Province. Kelly is on alert for the cultural differences, for the imaginative bridge she must foster between China and the United States in her future life: "I stare into the faces of everybody there, and wonder if they're biologically related to my daughter."

There's the magic of meeting her daughter. "I'm nervous about meeting her," Kelly says, and "then she is there." And there's the strange magic of citizenship, such a vexed issue in our society today. After all Kelly and her husband have been though, Haramis speaks of the moment their plane touches American soil: "When we land, Athena becomes a U.S. citizen."

In the end, in this complex story of joy and grief, Kelly's story of motherhood is also her mother's story. "To me she was part of the adoption." Her mother had planned to escort her daughter to China, before her sudden death. The adoption helped with the grieving process because through it all Haramis had something to look forward to, but that loss haunts her, and that loss lyrically haunts this play: "It's hard to be a parent without your parent alive."

"I always pictured my mother there, with me, for the adoption," Haramis says. Her father had originally passed on the idea of traveling to China, but this play remembers the joy of her father stepping up to take part in the process. "He came to China with us. He came for my mother."

And though her father too would die a couple years later, Kelly's story is very much about lineage and cultural heritage, and what it means to be a child (even as an adult), and what it means to be a parent. For that reason it's almost impossible for Haramis to draw a line between her mother's story and her own. "She's so much a part of my story, and Double Happiness is her story too."

DATES: Be sure to catch Double Happiness at FRIGID New York between February 20 and March 6, at the Under St. Marks Theater, 94 St Marks Place, and see both of her daughters in this compelling trailer.

R. Clifton Spargo is the author of the novel Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (2013), which will be released in paperback this April.