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Sarah, Sarah

Well

By New York City
Lisa Kron and Jayne Houdyshell in Well(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Lisa Kron and Jayne Houdyshell in Well
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Lisa Kron, wearing a casual black outfit and a shiny helmet of rust-colored hair, arrives in her show Well with an intriguing subject. In a self-consciously sincere tone of voice, she says that she'll be discussing her own theory on why some people recover from illness while others languish for years. The play about to unfold, she goes on to declare, will not be about her mother and her. That's when she indicates the actress Jayne Houdyshell reclining stage right in a La-Z-Boy amidst a heap of living room clutter. Houdyshell has been there since the audience entered the hall and Kron insists that she'll only refer to her when it's necessary to illustrate a point.

Of course, as soon as Kron makes a point of telling us what the show is not about, the audience knows that this is absolutely what it is about. A "solo show with some other people in it," as Kron puts it, Well is the latest in a long line of mother-daughter plays. The playwright-monologist confirms as much within minutes, when Houdyshell's Ann Kron bolts from her perch and begins offering soft drinks to front-row patrons. (She even tosses out a few bags of chips.) As Lisa Kron replays scenes from her life with other performers whom she has supposedly hired to help with the reenactments, Ann Kron increasingly appropriates the proceedings. In time, she even wins over the actors -- Kenajuan Bentley, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Joel van Liew, and Welker White, all responding to their own names. These thesps refuse to continue playing Kron's scenes when they find that they're no longer in sympathy with them.

Apparently, Ann Kron -- for all her lingering medical complaints -- has been an active member of her community and effective in bettering the neighborhood. This is to say that the public Ann Kron, with her knack for making people feel good about themselves, is far from the private Ann Kron, who's such a trial for her daughter. The discrepancy is common from family to family and the cause of frustration in those who have to cope with the conflicting perceptions. On these grounds, Kron's piece is recognizably and uncomfortably valid, maddening in its universality and reassuring for the same reason.

The metaphor of Ann Kron butting into Kron's series of living slides is also strong: You can take the girl away from the mother, the play posits, but you can't take the mother out of the girl. Throughout the intermissionless piece, author Kron attempts to show herself during a hospital stay when she was ill but disposed to improve; however, her mother interrupts the sequences with her amendments. The elder Kron has little sympathy for the younger's being tormented by a nine-year-old girl from her past who keeps showing up with bullying intentions. By the time Houdyshell realizes that she's also on Ann Kron's side, Lisa Kron herself is beginning to acknowledge that her take on her mother is one-sided.

Well is about a daughter trying to reconcile her view of her mother with a larger view. It's about reaching that very modern psychological goal: forgiving one's parents for real and imagined transgressions and then moving on with one's life. Eventually admitting her mother's strengths is Kron's personal conquest of a tenacious illness; on the mother-daughter relationship front, she is well at last. She reaches the conclusion in part as a result of reading a speech that mother Kron had once made at a local meeting. The contents won't be divulged here but the speech is sure to make audience members feel that forgiveness is the least this daughter can grant.

Kron's intentions are admirable, yet she only realizes them fitfully. During the piece, which practically owes royalties to Luigi Pirandello, she does get off a number of amusing observations. "The culture of illness is so strong in my family," she says, "that it's the way we keep time. Like my cousins will say to me, 'Right, that happened the year I didn't go to school because I had that thing where the blood was cut off to my brain.'" In depicting Ann Kron, the playwright has been more generous than many a bitter daughter might be; more than a few ticket-buyers will see their mothers in the kindly woman whom friends adore while her daughters (and sons) feel otherwise.

Kenajuan Bentley, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, and Lisa Kron in Well(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Kenajuan Bentley, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, and Lisa Kron in Well
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Still, Well has the feel of something unfinished and not entirely thought through. (Kron's last piece was 2.5 Minute Ride, in which she wrote about her father with some of the same need to understand; it was a more complete work and she seemed more at ease in it.) When Kron announces at the outset that she'll be examining the differences between those who recover from sickness and those who can't or choose not to, she raises an intriguing issue that remains unexplored. Her ending implies one person's resolution but there's something unsatisfying about her failure to further probe the facets of real and feigned illness.

She certainly suggests that her feisty mother's problems are psychosomatic but she never actually gets around to any sort of confrontation on this point. Neither does Kron finish what she starts on the subject of her own hospitalization. How ill was she when she had to undergo food allergy tests? How did she recover? She doesn't quite say. At one point, Ann Kron remarks, "I don't see how they're going to understand how you learned to cope with the allergies if you don't tell them about what happened to you while you were in the unit." Hear, hear! Less troubling but not very entertaining are some show-biz references; having one of the actors who's becoming disenchanted with his assignment ask who is the Actor's Equity deputy registers as a gratuitous in-joke.

The actors supporting Kron's let's-break-the-fourth-wall enterprise have the right style for it, which says plenty about Leigh Silverman's lively direction. Of the five, Jayne Houdyshell steals the most thunder as someone to whom steadling thunder comes naturally. A roly-poly woman with the look of someone you might pass on the street every day without noticing, Houdyshell is one of those actresses who does no wrong. Earlier this season, she did no wrong in Fighting Words, and she's at it again here. It's easy to see why, as Kron has written it, the actors gather around Ann; the audience has the same urge to gather around Houdyshell. Of the others, Saidah Arrika Ekulona is especially funny as the pushy nine-year-old with a determined walk, Welker White plays a negative hospital roommate with humor, Joel van Liew has a couple of winning moments as an embarrassed actor, and Kenajuan Bentley does neighbor duty nicely.

Allen Moyer's tchotchke-laden living-room, with a staircase for Ann Kron to pull herself up, works well. So do Miranda Hoffman's costumes, Christopher Akerlind's lighting, and Jill BC DuBoff's sound, which features a Law and Order-like ping every time Kron returns to the monologue segments of her piece.

An affable presence for some time -- and that includes her days with the Five Lesbian Brothers -- Lisa Kron is on to something valuable here but hasn't quite hit the mark. Maybe the best wish to send her way is that she will get Well soon.


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