Part performance art, part memoir and part metatheater, Lisa Kron's "Well," which opened Sunday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, seeks to deconstruct the elements of the traditional theatrical arc.
Oh, and did I mention that it is wildly funny?
It is only when this roller-coaster ride of memory, analysis and back talk is done do you realize that it has all been carefully scripted. All of it. There are no improvisations in this piece. None. No matter what happens on stage.
As playwright Lisa Kron (Terri McMahon) portentously announces, reading from note cards, this play is "a multi-character theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community." She and a troupe of actors will act out the playwright's childhood in an integrated neighborhood as well as her stay in an allergy clinic when she was 19 years old.
What she really means is that she is going to examine why her mother is chronically ill and Lisa is well. Why a woman who energetically transformed a "mixed" neighborhood in Lansing, Mich., into a true community spent most of her life exhausted and in pain. And to that end, Lisa has brought her mother, Ann (Dee Maaske), on stage, ensconced in her La-Z-Boy recliner, comfortable in a recreation of her cluttered living room.
"I will occasionally be using my mother as an example," she says, stressing this is not a play about her relationship with her mother.
Of course it is a play about her relationship with her mother. Can you just imagine doing a stand-up monologue about your childhood with your mother watching? For that matter, can any of us imagine doing anything truly adult with our mothers watching and free to comment?
As the playwright describes it, her family believes, above all, in two things: allergies and racial integration. But this is a play with warmth and, above all, self-deprecation. Life — and Lisa's mother — has a way of bringing her down to reality. As Lisa describes vivid incidents and heroic acts, her mother gently corrects her. Hmm, Lisa, that's not the way it happened. Why did you leave that out?
So, in the course of Lisa's play, her troupe of actors — Brent Hinkley, G. Valmont Thomas, Gina Daniels and K.T. Vogt — not only become the people of Lisa's neighborhood and the people she met in the allergy clinic, but also themselves, interacting with Ann, who is much warmer, empathetic and down-to-earth than a manipulative playwright. Suddenly, all the traditional structure and barriers of the theatrical vocabulary dissolve.
In fact, at a crucial point, Lisa petulantly stomps offstage. Okay, if Ann wants to correct her, let her tell it her way! It is at that point that "Well" becomes both chaos and truth. We get to know a remarkable woman — Ann Kron — and how she encouraged the individuality and creativity of a remarkable daughter.
Veteran OSF director James Edmondson has staged this very intricate piece of woven fabric with iron discipline and exuberant affection. McMahon is delightful, exasperated and poignant, as is Maaske. And Edmondson walks a fine line with "the troupe." Are we seeing reality or artifice? Right to the end of the play, as "the troupe" storms out, we are not quite sure.
Richard Hay's set, complete with that cluttered living room, Candice Cain's sly costumes and Dawn Chiang's lighting complete the portrait. Composer and sound designer Joe Romano has produced a subtle and amusing counterpoint to the action. It all works, seamlessly.
Interestingly, the last words in "Well" belong to Ann Kron. They come from a speech she presented years before at that integrated neighborhood association about civic responsibility and a sense of community. Somehow, these quite formal phrases become the embodiment of the soul of "Well," of what Kron has attempted to achieve. We — individuals and society — may, from time to time, be ill, but that does not mean we cannot become well. It is simply that we cannot do it alone.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.