Well - Wellesley Repertory Theatre
Well – Wellesley Repertory Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
Well is presented by Wellesley Repertory Theatre. Written by Lisa Kron. Directed by Marta Rainer. Set Design by David Towlun. Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl. Lighting Design by Graham Edmonson.
Is there anyone out there with an uncomplicated relationship with their parents? I mean truly uncomplicated from start to finish, birth to death, with no issues to work out or grudges held onto. Mazel tov to any of you who might have answered yes, but I remain skeptical that such a thing is possible. Even the Lorelai’s of Gilmore Girls managed to have their ups and downs over seven seasons of television. And in the real world, an entire self-help industry has risen dedicated to helping you work through the (supposed) damage your parents have inflicted on you. It seems that we all have at least one thing to wrestle with. If you want a window into how someone else is dealing with their own parental neuroses, Wellesley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting Lisa Kron’s play, Well. The play purports to be about Kron’s relationship with her own mother, but if anything it proves that our view of the ties to our parents are nothing more than a Rorschach test. At the end of the day, they say more about us than about them.
If you want to get technical, it may not be correct to call Kron’s play a play; it’s more of a theatrical memoir with complications. Kron herself appears as the lead character (here played by Sebastian Ryder) and with her tongue pressed firmly in her cheek, Kron (the character) describes the piece is a “multi-character theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in the community.” Despite the shot of irony infused into that statement, I think it’s oddly appropriate as it signifies that Kron (the playwright) is going to be throwing quite a few different ingredients into this particular brand of stew. It might be best to think of the play in terms of layers. On the top layer, Kron (both playwright and character) is trying to tell parallel stories of both how her mother helped push for racial integration for Michigan schools in the 60’s and of the time in her twenties, when Kron spent in an allergy clinic. Below this layer is the relationship between Kron and her mother, Ann (here played by Lisa Foley). Her mother appears onstage, watching and commenting on the proceedings and offering the audience members snacks from a recreation of her living room. Below this layer, you have the actors hired to play the supporting parts around Kron and Ann who keep losing track of the story because they’re so enamored with Ann’s presence on stage.
That’s a lot of narrative weight to lay on top of the production and I think the play’s meta-theatrical impulses undercut the emotional impact that it’s going for. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t pleasures to be had along the way in Wellesley Rep’s fine production. Director Marta Rainer’s creative team has assembled a world that’s beautiful to look at and balances the play’s many locations quite well. Actress Lisa Foley has charisma to burn as Ann and gives the production a lot of its charm. She has an able sparring partner with her onstage daughter, Sebastian Ryder, and the scenes between the two actresses show the shades of love and frustration built into their relationship. Ryder has a tricky task as Lisa Kron (the character), trying to pull together the threads of what the play is trying to do and I think she manages to pull it off (At least where her character is concerned). She’s an engaging presence for the audience to hook onto.
But despite all of the things going for it, while sitting in the audience, I couldn’t shake the feeling of a hollowness behind the proceedings which makes it hard to truly get behind Wellesley Rep’s production. I think it has to do with all of the layers of awareness that Kron has built into the play’s structure. After a while, it doesn’t feel like a storytelling device so much as walls put up between the audience and the subject. We’re told how the play is exploring the concept of “wellness” but the pieces from the various storylines are never allowed to fully overlap in a way that makes that statement seem true. Kron (the character) argues that the scenes depicting her mother’s desegregation efforts illuminate the idea of “un-wellness” within the community. Alright, that’s an interesting idea. But how exactly does it connect with the scenes of Kron in the allergy clinic whose purpose seems to be poking fun at the people who work at and visit these places? It’s not enough to just say that they both discuss “wellness.” If you pull your focus back far enough, any two ideas can be connected. To make it feel meaningful I need more of the details.
It’s also difficult to know what to make of the play’s many fourth-wall breaks. As depicted, the characters within the play eventually “revolt” again Lisa Kron (the character). At one point the “actors” within the show decide to quit and leave the stage and even the “actress” playing Ann eventually gets fed up with how “Lisa” is depicting her mother. The problem for me is that we know these scenes aren’t improvised, they’re in the script. We know this. So what we’re seeing isn’t chaos, but a thought out plan from the playwright and consequently, the scenes don’t have the impact they appear to be going for. It makes me wonder what the play would have been like with Kron playing the central (which she did in the original production). Would that have helped make it feel like the “actors” really were revolting against their playwright? Perhaps. But sitting in the audience at Wellesley Rep, I became aware of the falseness of the scenes rather than pulled in. I couldn’t help but wish that rather than having characters point out the ways that Kron (playwright and character) was being deficient, that she had dug deeper and written the more meaningful play they seem to want her to.
But as I said, for whatever doesn’t work for me about the piece, there are a handful of moments that connect wonderfully. Having seen the production a few days ago, the one image that’s burned into my memory is one that perhaps wasn’t planned. It came during a moment when the audience’s focus was supposed to be on Lisa Kron (the character). If you let your eyes wander from the scene, you’ll see Ann, sitting in her recliner bathed in colored light and gazing at her daughter with such a powerful look of love and affection. It’s a small moment, but one that proves that in Wellesley Rep’s production, the heartbeat is there.
Well is presented by Wellesley Repertory Theatre January 17-February 10, 2019 at the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre at Wellesley College.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.wellesleyrep.org