By Lisa Kron
Produced by Arena Stage
Directed by Kyle Donnelly
Reviewed by Janice Cane
Well is a fantastically original play that explores both personal and societal issues. Well, it’s really a play within a play. Or no, wait, it’s really a theatrical exploration inside a theatrical exploration. Or is it a play within a theatrical exploration? Oh! Maybe it’s a theatrical exploration within a play. No no, I got it. It’s a “solo show with other people in it” inside a …
That’s how playwright Lisa Kron might begin this review. But this review isn’t about Lisa Kron. Or her mother. Okay, it may borrow a few biographical details here and there, but … Hmm. You know, Lisa, that’s really not a bad lead. But you forgot to mention how great your mother is. And how exceptional the actress portraying her is. I mean, Nancy Robinette really gets this play. More than you do. And that monologue near the end? Inspiring.
That’s how the spirited supporting actors in Well-Scott Drummond, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Marc Damon Johnson, and Susan Lynskey-might chime in, as they so often do during the play-sorry!-theatrical exploration. But they forgot to mention one very important fact: the audience loves them all, and with plenty of good reason.
Lisa Kron, played with wit and charm by Emily Ackerman, has long been an outcast in her own life. She grew up in the 1970s, a lonely white Jewish girl in a predominantly black, Catholic Michigan suburb. The neighborhood was predominantly black because her mother worked tirelesslyfor racial integration. Except she wasn’t tireless. In fact, she was always tired. As Lisa puts it, Ann is a “fantastically energetic woman trapped in an extremely tired body.” Well is Lisa’s attempt to explore how her mother could be so successful at curing a community’s illness while she failed so miserably to cure her own.
Lisa takes the audience through her childhood, highlighting her mother’s work with the neighborhood association. As she tells the story, Ann-with the help of a childhood bully-forces Lisa to acknowledge that her work with integration wasn’t as easy as Lisa wants to remember it. Tension abounded among the children and the adults, but that tension pales in comparison to Lisa’s feelings toward Ann.
You need to see-no, experience-Well to fully understand these feelings, but in short, Lisa is bitter. Everyone in her family has always been sick. She herself ended up in an “allergy” ward instead of college for a semester, where allergies meant everything from ADD to OCD to plain ‘ole depression. But she got better, and she just can’t understand why Ann never did. However, despite her courage in writing this play, Lisa can’t seem to confront Ann about this essential question. Until Ann demands, “Stop hiding behind this play and talk to me.”
Well, they do talk. And then they stalk off and ignore each other. And then they talk some more. It’s impossible to sort through years of pain and love and misunderstanding in just one night, but mother and daughter make great headway, and it’s wonderful to be sitting in their living room while they do so.
Some playwrights break down the theatrical fourth wall. Well, Lisa Kron doesn’t stop there. She knocks down the other three, too, and even the floor. Lisa consults the audience for advice. Ann asks what you’d like to drink. The actors bicker with Lisa about the plot. But of course, they’re all still playing characters. It’s difficult to remember that Emily Ackerman and Nancy Robinette are not really the Kron women. They make these flawed characters so likeable that I want to meet the real Lisa and Ann.
The four supporting actors play all of their roles-including “themselves”-equally well. It doesn’t hurt that they’re dressed well, too. Lisa describes her mother as a housewife savant, and in Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ costume-from the cardigan to the little white socks-she really is. The simplistic set and lighting design, by Thomas Lynch and Nancy Schertler, respectively, also add just the right amount of panache. Lisa Kron should feel very lucky to have landed at Arena after Well‘s Tony-nominated run on Broadway.
Just as this review was probably one or two paragraphs too long, Well would probably be perfect if it were one or two scenes shorter. It has no intermission, which is a good thing for its momentum, but around the 90-minute mark, even the funniest antics start to feel like repetitive shticks. Nevertheless, Lisa is far too modest when she insists Well is “not meant to be a well made play.” Whatever you want to call it-play, theatrical exploration, one-woman show with intruders-Well is a unique, refreshingly honest, touchingly funny show.
(Running time: approximately one hour and 45 minutes) Playing through October 14 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street S.W., Washington, DC 20024. Performances are Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $47 to $66, with discounts available. Buy online at http://www.arenastage.org/. For best visibility, we recommend seats in the North and West sections.