By Cara Jepsen
Growing up in the 1960s, Judith Harding longed to take Irish dance lessons. "Everyone was taking them, even my friends who weren't Irish," says Harding, who's from west suburban Westchester. But her father put his foot down. "My father insisted we were American, not Irish. He came to the U.S. when he was nine, and the first thing he did was get rid of his accent."
He didn't fool Harding. "He had a tendency to tell whoppers--I think it's a congenital Irish thing," she says. "I remember one time he spent an entire day setting up a joke for me. Early in the morning he said, 'What was that that just went through the room? I just saw a spirit.' Then he was looking at the lawn in the middle of the day. He said, 'Look at the blackbirds on the lawn. That's a sign.' That night he put a bent spoon on my bed, so that when I turned on the light I saw a flash of light. It freaked me out."
He also had a temper that, in Harding's words, "expressed itself through his fists sometimes. In grade school a nun mistook a mark on my cheek for something that it wasn't. It was actually a mark from my dad slapping me. I told her what it was and showed her some bruises. She told me they were a sign of my father's love."
When Harding was seven, she started having psychotic episodes that eventually included terrifying visions and demonic voices telling her to die. But it wasn't all bad, she says. "All of my hallucinations were not horrifying. Some were extremely pleasant and I took refuge in some of them--like the Blessed Mother talking to me, or imaginary friends who were creatures that were protective of me."
Harding says there's a history of mental illness on her mother's side of the family. "It's funny how they look at suicides," she says. "'Well, if he just hadn't been so close to that darn window...'"
It wasn't until she was well into adulthood that she realized such episodes weren't normal. The voices got stronger and she tried to shut them out by hurting herself. "I was strung out, really strung out," she says. Yet she'd managed to build a success-ful acting career. She studied at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York, learned mime and clowning, played the mail carrier in the national touring production of Sesame Street Live, and appeared as Lady Anne in an off-Broadway production of Richard III directed by Michael Moriarty. "I think acting saved my life," she says.
When she was 34, she was hospitalized for depression and schizo-affective disorder, for which she now takes a mild antidepressant. "If I don't take my meds and see a psychiatrist regularly, I'll start hearing things and seeing things that aren't there," she says. Her 1997 show, You Are Here, was an often funny examination of her experiences with mental illness that she performed in theaters and hospitals, where she also has led storytelling workshops. "It's a therapeutic process," she says. "I look at myself as a psychic Jacques Cousteau, diving into the depths."
The four difficult years she spent getting back on her feet at her parents' home are covered in her new one-woman show, Angela's Asses: Solo for Female Harp ("harp" is derogatory slang for an Irish person), which opened last week at Live Bait Theater. In it Harding uses music, storytelling, and movement to examine her father's childhood in Brooklyn and his eventual acceptance of his heritage, as well as her relationship with him and all things Irish.
After dropping out of high school and bouncing around the States for a couple of years, Harding spent six months traveling in Ireland. "I was enraptured with anything Irish--Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, Shaw," she says. "I felt really drawn to go back there."
In Dublin she met her father's Uncle Brenny, who told her a story about seeing British soldiers shoot a young mother on the street. "He saw a mother with a child in her arms, holding a picture of the Sacred Heart and begging for her life," says Harding. "And the hole went right through her heart. It took me until my 40s until I thought, 'Wait a minute...'"
Her Aunt Mae in Galway told Harding she spent her honeymoon night under her mother-in-law's dining room table because of militia fighting outside. During her trip she also met a man and got engaged, but later dumped him. He's the most benign character in Angela's Asses, in which she also plays--among others--her father, Brenny, Mae, and the nun to whom she showed her bruises.
Harding's father finally reconciled with his past after making his own trek to Ireland shortly after hers. "My mother dragged him," she says. As for Harding, "I'd always planned to go back," she says. "This always disgusts me about myself--but when I'm around Irish people, I still start talking with a brogue or lilt. I've reconciled myself to the fact that there's something of the ass in me, and that I'm American, not Irish."
The title of her show comes from her brother, a Christian Brother and high school principal. Five years ago he asked their mother what he should give their father for Christmas. "She said, 'You've got to get this book for dad, Angela's Ashes,' which wasn't really famous yet," says Harding. "So my brother goes off to Barnes & Noble, looking for the book. He couldn't find it, so he goes up to a clerk and says, 'Do you have a copy of "Angela's Asses"?' He did this in his collar, looking like a priest."
Harding's father loved the book--but not Frank McCourt's follow-up, 'Tis, "probably because the story reflects a lot of his own stuff," she says. "My father can write his own show about that."
For many years "things were extremely tense" between Harding and her father, but their relationship turned a corner about five years ago, when they took care of a dying aunt together. "Now we're extremely close," she says, laughing. "I'm glad that we could actually have a relationship. His short-term memory is just evaporating so rapidly he can't hold grudges anymore. That helps a lot."
These days Harding lives with her husband in Lincoln Square, and an office job at a packaging brokerage helps to pay the bills. She still does commercial and voice-over work and performs with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit at the University of Chicago hospitals. She's also a facilitator for the Field/Chicago's interdisciplinary performance workshops, where she developed her two one-woman shows.
Her parents came to see You Are Here, and last year she gave them a video of an excerpt from Angela's Asses that she performed as part of Blue Rider's Honor Thy Father show in June. "My father said, 'It was a kick in the head, but a good kick.' It hit him hard."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.