In Lisa Kron’s autobiographical play Well, the character Lisa Kron insists that her main purpose is not to talk about her mother, Ann. She’s even reluctant to use the word play, for Kron—in real life as well as fiction—is known primarily as a monologist; when we meet her onstage she is attempting to write “a multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community.”
She says this countless times, but of course Well is wholly about Ann Kron, except when it’s about Lisa or (most often) Ann and Lisa together. “I wanted to crawl right into her skin, and I couldn’t push her far enough away,” another character says of her own mother (though in Kron’s highly metatheatrical world, all references point back to the author/protagonist). Occasionally the play’s self-conscious narration seems forced—a naïve pose—since we don’t doubt for a second that the real-life Kron is fully aware of her true subject. If she were not, she wouldn’t have been able to craft such a stirring work of theatre.
In her directorial debut at Baltimore’s Strand Theater, Rain Pryor—also the company’s new artistic director—gives Well a sympathetic production. The Strand has a knack for choosing directors who seem inspired, rather than constrained, by its tiny playing space, and Pryor is no exception. Scenic artist Ryan Haase fills the theater with the cumulative artifacts of life in suburban America: every available surface seems to hold papers, boxes, canned goods, knickknacks, and—significantly for both Ann and Lisa—prescription medications.
As we take our seats, Ann (Joan Weber) is already onstage, dozing in her recliner. Eventually Lisa (Alexandra Linn) enters, shuffling a stack of notecards, still tinkering with the structure of her “theatrical exploration.” Lisa explains that she used to be constantly ill; that her mother—“a fantastically energetic person trapped in an utterly exhausted body”—has always been ill; and that according to her mother, the root of all illness is allergies, not simply to dust or dander or wheat products but to modern life itself: to shopping malls and consumer goods treated with formaldehyde and the myriad ways in which intolerance of human diversity poisons our relationships.
To help dramatize this last point, Lisa—acknowledging the limitations of her preferred, solo form—has recruited four actors to play various characters from her past. She focuses on two crucial groups: the doctors and patients at the allergy unit where Lisa was briefly admitted at nineteen; and the inhabitants of the racially integrated neighborhood where Lisa grew up and where her mother, despite her health, presided over the progressive community association. But before Lisa can say much, Ann awakens and, to her daughter’s growing horror, refuses to remain in the margins; Lisa spends the rest of the play trying desperately to assert her version of history.
Linn makes a warm, engaging center for the play. If occasionally she seems unsure of her lines (a problem that affects most of the cast), she slips easily between Lisa’s several roles as narrator, actor (and, increasingly, improviser) in her story, and daughter. As Ann, Weber is sensational; I hesitate to say luminous, because from start to finish we see Ann locked in battle with the illness that robs her strength, yet she exudes a magnetism that no one—including Lisa’s fellow actors—can resist. When late in the play Weber stepped out of character to speak as her (fictional) self, I did not immediately sense the transition, so fully had Weber integrated Ann’s being with her own.
Michael Alban, Donna M. Fox, Kyla Janise, and Shawn Naar each play several roles, some more sharply defined than others. Particularly during the early scenes, comic moments feel strained, as though the actors are still locating their characters. Once all the moving parts begin to click, however, the ensemble is a delight to watch. Fox and Janise have especially poignant moments as longtime inpatients at the allergy unit, and Janise is unexpectedly frightening as an elementary-school classmate who terrorizes Lisa.