Down with sick people! How annoying they are! When we want them to do something, they instead give us their excuses, their rheums and complaints, and what’s more, they present depressing pleas for sympathy, which distract people from us! It is bad enough when they have real, medically discernible symptoms. But far worse are those who merely have complaints, like profound fatigue or deep pain, without an accompanying medical diagnosis.
Poseurs! Hypochondriacs! Psychosomatic dreamers, like…well, like the character Ann Kron who, notwithstanding her absolutely heroic struggle to make her integrated community work, is prone to excessive sleep and rigorous pain, to the worried dismay of her daughter.
Except that Ann Kron is a real person, and so is her daughter Lisa, a playwright — the playwright who wrote this play, actually. And it’s not really a play so much as “a multicharacter theatrical exploration of health and illness both in the individual and the community.” I know this because the playwright, Lisa Kron, assured me of it at the beginning of the play. Also: that it is not a play about Lisa and her mother, which means, of course, that it is.
In fact, this multicharacter theatrical exploration takes place, apparently, in spite of Lisa and her mom, since her mom, Lisa explains, “is not a theater person.” And indeed she is not. “You didn’t tell me there were people here” she says as she blinks her eyes open and notices the audience; thereafter, she immediately offers us all soft drinks, and later tosses us snacks. (First three rows, a little stage right, is the best place to score.)
To accomplish her theatrical exploration, Lisa engages some actors. Laura Artesi plays Laura, who plays Lisa’s neurotic hospital roommate, and other roles; Edward Christian plays Ed, who plays one of Ann’s white neighbors who collaborates with her community-advancement efforts, and other roles; Marquis D. Gibson plays Marquis, who plays one of Ann’s African-American neighbors and collaborators, and other roles; and Lolita Marie plays Lolita, who plays one of Lisa’s schoolmates, and other roles.
And Audrey Bertaux plays Lisa Kron, who in Lisa Kron’s telling is a brittle, somewhat self-righteous know-it-all who means to use her art to cook the books on her twin objectives: to show her mother’s seamless creation of a happy, powerful, fully-integrated neighborhood in the face of skepticism from civic leaders and real estate brokers; and to explore why she, Lisa Kron, was able to overcome her illnesses while her mother is still made prostrate by hers.
But reality keeps getting in the way. Like Hamlet instructing his players to act out an account, Lisa organizes her actors to present her glorious childhood accounts, but then Ann will interrupt, gently but insistently, and reinsert all the fear and failure and exhaustion Lisa left out. And childhood boogeymen pop up out of nowhere to spoil the idyllic tale Lisa means to spin out. And the actors, in Pirandello-like rebellion, insist on presenting themselves authentically on stage.
I can’t emphasize enough how thoroughly Bertaux and Elizabeth Pierotti, who plays Ann, understand and deliver this play. Kron is ruthlessly honest with herself on stage (in the original production, she played Lisa), and exposes her own pretensions and shortcomings relentlessly. And yet she is the protagonist, and she must hold our rooting interest if the play is to succeed. Bertaux, pained smile plastered on her face throughout most of the proceedings, shows us an artist on the edge of panic, in danger of being consumed by her own creation. She is never more appealing than when she is being hard on herself: she recounts, for example, a childhood costume party, where other girls were dressed as princesses and so she decided to be the princess “of five”, and wear five of everything. She looked ridiculous, she remembers, her face collapsing in despair and self-loathing, apparently unaware that the same unique thinking which induced her to be a princess of five also induced her to write a play — well, a play like Well. Bertaux is superb in carrying these warring tendencies simultaneously, and in so doing, helps carry the play.
Pierotti has the opposite task, as Ann is an advocate of Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanations are the most likely. She is sick because she is sick: prone to allergies, and thus forced to cope with them. She is betrayed by her body, not her mind; her mind is fine. She loves and admires her daughter but Lisa isn’t lying when she says that Ann is not a theater person.
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Ann watches her daughter’s production attentively, as she might watch the ten-year-old Lisa putting on a show with her friends; but she doesn’t fully understand the enterprise. When Lisa recounts the struggle to make their integrated neighborhood succeed, Ann sees it as history, not art, and history must be told accurately. Pierotti thus must play someone with no artifice whatsoever, for whom theater is an unfamiliar and somewhat suspicious concept. Pierotti manages it beautifully.
I have seen this play done on a large, well-tricked-out stage; 1st Stage offers a much smaller space, but it is efficiently used, and sufficient. Luciana Stecconi has put together a living room that seems perfect for a woman of Ann Kron’s temperament: stuffed to the gills with content, but well organized. Meanwhile, director Michael Bloom uses the rest of the stage for Lisa’s play-in-progress, shuttling furniture on and off stage unfussily.
This is also Lisa’s life-in-progress, and we learn that the know-it-all we see at the beginning of the play can actually learn compassion when confronted, against her will, by the truth. We can, too.
Well by Lisa Kron, directed by Michael Bloom, assisted by Rocky Nunzio. Featuring Laura Artesi, Audrey Bertaux, Edward Christian, Marquis D. Gibson, Lolita Marie, and Elizabeth Pierotto Lighting design: Catherine Girardi . Sound design: Kenny Neal . Costume design: Danielle Preson . Set design: Luciana Stecconi . Props Design: Kay Rzasa and Deb Crerie . Production manager: Patrick Kilpatrick . Stage manager: Allison Poms. Produced by 1st Stage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.