In the age of high anxiety, the idea of a benevolent hijacking seems unorthodox. But that’s pretty much what happens onstage in Lisa Kron’s ingeniously oddball play “Well,” arriving on Broadway with its many charms intact after a hit 2004 run at the Public Theater. That the pilot in this case allows herself to be so thoroughly commandeered by other forces, both as playwright and lead performer, only enhances the refreshingly self-effacing, generous and genuine qualities of this circuitous but clearly heartfelt tribute to Kron’s mother, a maverick spirit and a champion of integration.
Despite its advocacy of accepting difference, this is no banal message play. A “solo show with other people in it,” “Well” studiously defies categorization. It borrows as much from Pirandello as from more contemporary downtown metatheatrics to flirt willfully with chaos and derailment throughout much of the running time — only to come together with bracing clarity in the final stretch when Kron appears to have lost control of the vehicle.
Of course, the anarchy is entirely artful and calculated, but in director Leigh Silverman’s playfully loose-limbed production, it has the captivating air of reckless spontaneity.
Adopting the manner of a slightly self-conscious motivational speaker, Kron insists off the bat that this is not a play about herself and her mother, indicating the woman in the dowdy nightgown, cardigan and slippers stage left who’s been snoozing in a La-Z-Boy recliner since the audience entered.
Revealing that her chosen topic will be illness and wellness in the individual and the community, Kron describes the show, with the help of index cards, as “a theatrical exploration of issues which are universal and for which we will occasionally be using my mother as an example.”
But from the moment her mother, Ann (Jayne Houdyshell), is roused from slumber, it seems clear from her skeptical comments that this affable Midwestern woman will be no meekly compliant instructional aid. Clearly, she’s not ecstatic about waking to find herself and her living room (a cluttered, pack-rat corner of Tony Walton’s deftly multifunctional set) on display before a live audience. But if Ann Kron’s lifelong battle with “allergies” is going to be discussed, she wants a hand in the telling.
“My mother is a fantastically energetic person trapped in an utterly exhausted body,” explains Lisa. Despite the dogged determination with which she claims a broader scope, that paradox is the play’s galvanizing central conflict.
“It’s not about how she’s been sick for years and years and years, and I was sick as well but somehow I got better,” insists Lisa. “It’s not about how she was able to heal a neighborhood, but she’s not able to heal herself.” The magic of “Well” is both its reluctant confinement to personal history and its seemingly haphazard, empathetic embrace of a more universal perspective.
The healing intervention of which Kron speaks grew out of her mother’s desire to raise the playwright and her brother in a racially integrated neighborhood, hence the need to set about creating one in Lansing, Mich., using social activities to build political power and battle the city council over zoning changes. With the help of four other multitasking cast members, the play also chronicles Lisa’s time in the allergy unit at Chi’s Henrotin Hospital.
In these two main threads, the play’s logic subscribes entirely to the logic of Ann Kron, who believes in allergies (“a highly underrated, sinister, life-destroying force kept secret from us by the evil AMA-controlled medical establishment”) and in the positive effects of racial integration. Distilling her mother’s liberal-progressive credo, Lisa says: “It’s important to be different. If you’re a part of the main group all the time, you never learn to see the world from anyone’s point of view but your own.”
Ann’s interruptions at first are confined to correcting a detail or straightening a timeline here and there. But as Lisa’s solo-performance approach is increasingly revealed to be inadequate for the task at hand, her mother’s incursions become more frequent and destabilizing.
While dutifully attempting to sit back and let Lisa “do her work,” Ann observes that the montage of events seems “awfully compressed,” sharing her doubts about oversimplification with the other cast members and eventually sparking a kind of well-meaning mutiny. “She’s more used to the one-woman shows,” says Ann, by way of explaining why the other cast members respond more to her than to Lisa. “She’s figuring it out.”
In allowing another character onstage to dismantle her method with charges that it’s too easy, forcing her to “stop hiding behind this play and talk to me,” Kron not only shows a willingness to delve deep into her relationship with her mother but to deconstruct, with rare wit and intelligence, the theatrical process on which she has built a career.
This concept of a performance piece undermined and rerouted by an unmanageable force could only work with a thoroughly credible actor portraying that disruptive force. In the disarming Houdyshell, “Well” has much more than that. As was frequently observed of Broadway legend Laurette Taylor, Houdyshell’s extreme naturalness makes her seem like someone who just wandered in off the street — a real flesh-and-blood woman who appears to be yakking away onstage without a script.
Until a key moment better not revealed, Houdyshell alone remains deep in character while the rest of the cast interact with her both as characters in the story and as the actors employed to play them.
Kron is a wry performer with a live-wire, appealing stage manner (her recollections of going to a princess-populated costume party as the Little Match Girl, or the mistake of wearing a Laura Ingalls Wilder calico prairie dress to school are priceless), and the supporting cast all earn their laughs.
But it’s Houdyshell who anchors the play and supplies its beating heart. Even in her dialogue-less moments, slumped on her recliner and clucking disapprovingly or chuckling at the memory-driven action being conjured stage right, Houdyshell’s inhabitation of Ann Kron is effortless, vivid and complete, creating a complex, contrary character whose magnetic warmth for the other people onstage — and for the audience — is readily understandable.
When Lisa relinquishes control to her mother near the close of the play as she reveals confronting truths about her feelings for her, it seems churlish of her as a character but an uncommonly gracious gesture as a writer. And as Houdyshell gives back the final words to Kron in the form of one of Ann’s speeches, the gesture is even more affecting. The exchange conveys a whole universe of tender, messy, mother-daughter attachments in just a few beautifully calibrated minutes of stage time.