Playwright Lisa Kron knows what it’s like to live in a sick house. Growing up with a chronically ill mother, Miss Kron endured the endless bad days and the rare good days, the tip-toeing around the patient and the pall of sickness that hung over her childhood home like a toxic mist.
In her Tony-nominated one-act, Well, Miss Kron deftly delves into the alternative universe of persistent illness and how it warps you into thinking that health and wellness is an exotic destination that is so far out of reach it is almost beyond comprehension. The Strand Theater tackles this unconventional play — part memoir, part fourth-wall busting experiment — with relish under the shrewd direction of new artistic director Rain Pryor.
The play begins with Lisa Kron (the lively Alexandra Linn) telling the audience that she is about to embark on “a universal exploration of sickness and wellness.” She barely gets started before real life intrudes in the form of her mother Ann (Joan Webber, who overdoes the wheezing at first, but then settles into an empathetic and ingratiating performance), who has been lying patiently — and panting like someone with congestive heart failure—in a recliner at the back of the set.
Ann is the very model of a modern shut-in — Kleenex piled all around her, drinks in adult sippy cups at her elbow, remote at hand as well as computer print-outs, magazines and other reading material. Scenic artist Ryan Haase expertly captures the cozy, age-faded cubbyhole of a pack-rat and homebody.
Ann’s sacked out passiveness at first seems to be in direct opposition to her daughter’s jangly, pacing energy. She has a voice, however, and a memory, and constantly interrupts Lisa’s narrative with corrections and suggestions.
Lisa comes across as a live wire with a clear-cut agenda—to talk about life with Mother, a woman who succumbed and surrendered to her symptoms and tried to pass on the culture of sickness to her daughter. Lisa wishes to show how she rejected this lifestyle and made herself well, healthy and whole.
For all her persistence, the play falls apart all around her. Ann keeps busting in and even invites the actors realizing Lisa’s vision (Michael Alban, Donna M. Fox, Kyla Janise, and Sean Naar) to gather ‘round the recliner for a cozy chin-wag. Of course, the actors are charmed by Ann’s warmth and down-to-earth perspective, much to Lisa’s dismay.
What emerges most strikingly is not a portrait of persistent illness, but of a woman who believed heart and soul in the importance of a racially integrated community and fought with everything she had to make it come true. Yes, she was often sick, but Ann also worked tirelessly to show that racial diversity is not just a concept, but the lifeblood of a successful neighborhood.
Lisa seems determined to show the unrelenting gray of her childhood, but the past pops up in living color, especially in the guise of childhood nemesis Lori Jones (a vibrant Miss Janise), a bully who taunts Lisa with racial epithets. Other bright intrusions include Lisa’s ebullient neighbor Oscar (Mr. Naar, who also gets to play Oscar’s tippling Dad) and Dottie (the delightful Miss Fox), a neighborhood busybody.
Well falters a bit chronicling Lisa’s stay in an allergy clinic, which is portrayed as such a bizarro world even the disease-loving Ann would find it hard to take. Clearly, it was not Lisa’s favorite time in her life, a watershed moment where she would decide to choose wellness over illness, but this heavy-handed approach does not work in her favor.
Similarly, the humor in the relationship between mother and daughter and the discrepancies in their clashing recollections normally would provide rich comic fodder. The actors helping Lisa with her story do their best to make their moments funny and pointed, but the rapport between Lisa and Ann is anything but witty. Even alone they fail to mine the humorous aspects, particularly Lisa talking about the allergy clinic and about her geeky, isolated childhood. Only a loner would think it would be a cool idea to come to school dressed in prairie togs like her idol, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Well is an intriguing play with an ambitious schema and while it does not adequately address all its issues it does reveal how embracing illness and embracing health can both result in lives well-lived.
Well is onstage thru June 16, 2012 at the Strand Theater, 1823 N. Charles St, Baltimore, MD.
by Lisa Kron
Directed by Rain Pryor
Produced by Strand Theater Company
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes without intermission