WELL: How we create our own narratives that aren’t necessarily anyone else’s.
Lisa Kron calls her “multi-character theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in an individual and in a community” Well. But she might easily have dubbed it Six Characters in Defiance of an Author. All of the dramatis personae, including the character of Lisa Kron (who is played by Lisa Kron), get to throw a monkey wrench into the writer’s ostensible design for the piece — which is neatly laid out on note cards that go flying as in a game of 52 pick-up. Most disruptive to Lisa Kron’s plan is the character of her mother, Ann Kron (who is not played by Ann Kron), an amiable if frowzy figure beached on a La-Z-Boy recliner tucked into a cluttered living room stage left. The chronically invalided Ann is the focal point of her daughter’s autobiographical exploration of individual and communal healing, and she’s not happy about it. But the other characters, too, rebel like Pirandello’s in this unusually warm and funny exercise in meta-theater that, having originated at the Public Theatre in 2004, went on to an unlikely 2006 Broadway run and a Tony nomination for Kron. Now the whole exploding jalopy, with author/performer Kron and director Leigh Silverman at the wheel but a new set of passengers acting up in the back seat (not to mention the La-Z-Boy), has motored up to the Huntington Theatre Company (at the Boston University Theatre through April 8), emotional baggage stacked like luggage on top.
Lisa Kron, one fifth of the Five Lesbian Brothers, who are known for such subversive works as The Secretaries and Oedipus at Palm Springs, has also garnered acclaim as a solo performer whose one-woman shows include 101 Humiliating Stories and 2.5 Minute Ride. Her character in the play calls Well “a solo show with other people in it,” hastening to add that it is not about herself and her mother, who “has been sick for years and years and years, and I was sick as well but somehow I got better.” The on-stage Lisa further maintains that the piece is not about how Ann, a social activist who mobilized against white flight when her corner of Lansing, Michigan, became integrated, “was able to heal a neighborhood but not able to heal herself.” Ann, it seems, suffers from “the family mystery illness: an inability to move, due to allergies.” Lisa also caught the malaise, and at 19 she was treated in a Chicago hospital allergy unit before curing herself, she maintains, by moving to New York, away from her mother, and choosing health. But as the author told American Theatre, the play, in which she deliberately presents herself as an unreliable narrator, is really about “how we create narrative to make sense of our lives, and how each of our own individual narratives is not necessarily true for someone else.”
To this end, Lisa Kron creates an Ann Kron for whom the audience, along with the other actors, would throw her over in a heartbeat. At the Huntington, Lisa plays herself with a mix of pent-up frustration and tact, tiptoeing around the subject of her mother’s hypochondria, which therapy has convinced her she’s inherited (though she does allow the play’s allergy-afflicted characters their suffering say). But Ann — played with folksy guilelessness by Mary Pat Gleason, whether sitting splay-legged in her La-Z-Boy, laboring up stairs on overburdened mules, offering soda and snacks to the audience, or reluctantly allowing herself to be slid under the microscope of performance art — has memories and a slant of her own. And for a woman who can barely muster the energy to flatten her Michigan vowels, she sticks to them like a criminal to the Fifth.
Not all of Well works as well as its Pirandellian conceit or the frank, homy character of Ann, who, albeit dragged into the spotlight, pulls it to her cardigan-swaddled bosom. The scenes set at the allergy unit, where Lisa’s fellow inmates bemoan and obsess over perceived “reactions” to the likes of corn and water, are strange enough to captivate. But the recollections of the racially divided neighborhood to which Ann affixed an epoxy of idealism and “social activities” are cartoonish — even if oversimplified memory is the point. I did like the demonic grade-school bully (Donnetta Lavinia Grays channeling Jack Nicholson in The Shining) who keeps forcing her way into Lisa Kron’s subconscious and the play, at one point pulling down the set like the house of cards this odd, artful piece pretends to be.