BWW Review: WELL Takes a Comedic Look at the Mess That Is Life, at Profile Theatre
At the beginning of Lisa Kron's 2004 award-winning play WELL, the character Lisa Kron tells the audience that the show they're about to see is "a multi-character theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community." Her goal, she says, is to answer the question: Why do some people become well and others don't?
During this whole introduction, Lisa's mother, Ann, is sleeping in a recliner. It's immediately clear that Lisa is using herself as the model for wellness and her mother as the model for sickness. In Lisa's mind, she already knows the answer to the question: people who are sick simply aren't mentally strong enough to get well.
Soon, Lisa's "theatrical exploration" gets underway, with scenes from her time in the allergy unit of a hospital juxtaposed with scenes of her childhood in a racially integrated neighborhood in 1970s Michigan.
Everything starts out fine, but soon the whole thing falls apart. Ann questions Lisa's interpretation of events, a neighborhood bully keeps interrupting, and the actors wander off. As chaos takes over, the play's real message is revealed: you can't just take the parts of life that fit with your worldview and pretend that's the whole story. Life is complex, and people don't fit into neat little boxes. If we oversimplify, we miss the opportunity for real understanding and connection.
WELL is one of the most interesting plays I've seen in a long time because of how Kron completely dismantles conventional dramatic structure. At times, you're not sure exactly what you're watching - Is this a play? A memoir? Improv? A couple of times, I suspected that the whole thing really had gone off the rails. It hadn't (I don't think), but the uncertainty is the whole point. Things aren't black and white.
This all might not sound that funny, but it is - Kron is a master at finding humor in dark places and using that humor to uncover deeper insights.
I saw WELL on opening weekend, and it seemed like the cast hadn't quite found their groove yet. I have no doubt that they will. Allison Mickelson, who audiences will recognize from the recent Portland productions of FUN HOME and 2.5 MINUTE RIDE plays Lisa, and Vana O'Brien plays her mom. They're supported by Michael Mendelson, Eleanor O'Brien, Jennifer Lanier, and La'Tevin Alexander. WELL is running in repertory with Anna Deavere Smith's LET ME DOWN EASY, opening this weekend. Both plays feature the same cast, so the actors have a lot on their plates, but they're all excellent performers, and once they get into the rhythm, the show will reach its potential.
WELL runs through June 16 at Portland Playhouse. More details and tickets here.