Well

by John Stoltenberg

“Social ills” is a term often used to name a problem without caring about the people affected by it—as in the phrase “racism and other social ills.”  It’s a way of keeping one’s distance by making the problem somebody else’s. It’s like the way one can hear said of someone chronically and inscrutably sick, “They didn’t live right; it’s their fault.” Or, “It’s a made-up malady, you know.”  These two messed-up ways of thinking come in for a hilarious sendup and blistering takedown in Lisa Kron’s 2004  Well, now playing at 1st Stage in a luminous production that moves the heart and animates the mind.

On the surface, Well is an autobiographical play being devised before our eyes by a woman named Lisa Kron, a New York performance artist like the actual author. She enters from the house and begins a monologue to introduce a show she has scripted:

The play that we’re about to do deals with issues of illness and wellness. It asks the question: Why are some people sick and other people are well? Why are some people sick for years and years and other people are sick for a while but then they get better? Why is that? What is the difference between those people?

That turns out to be a misdirection. Much of what Lisa has to say concerns the playwright’s actual mother, Ann Kron, even though Lisa says at the outset, “This play is not about my mother and me.” As we noticed when as we entered the theater, an elderly woman, whom we now learn is Lisa’s mother, has been asleep in a recliner on a set that at first glance seems cluttered but is in fact arranged with great care. (Set Designer Luciana Stecconi depicts Ann’s living room with remarkable authenticity;  Props Designers Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa have curated a fascinating mini museum of collectibles.) During Lisa’s monologue, Ann wakes with a line that cracks up the audience, and the daughter’s and mother’s divergent points of view are off and running.

Ann Kron is a Midwestern white woman who in real life was a community organizer. Ann believes deeply in racial equality and worked tirelessly to  integrate her Lansing, Michigan, neighborhood, even as she suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome aggravated by allergies, which kept her an exhausted semi-invalid. Lisa, when she was younger, had symptoms similar to her mother’s yet recovered.  Nevertheless Lisa is beside herself with fear that she is fated to become her mother.

As a replay of the masterplot of many a strained mother/daughter relationship, Well will play as a powerful recognition scene for many who are themselves daughters. And two extraordinary actors nail it: Audrey Bertaux as Lisa personifies Everydaughter’s beholden attachment to her birth mother along with Everydaughter’s drive to disidentify and get the heck away.  Elizabeth Pierotti’s sensational performance as Ann embodies laudable political conscience, an honest love for Lisa, and an amusing measure of Everymother’s critical snark. The connection and disconnection between their characters fills the house with an electricity that feels like contact with a live socket. Even if one is a son who has been paying but cursory attention to the women in his life, the complex conflict between Lisa and Ann in this production will ring profoundly true.

But Well is more.

First and foremost it’s a clever comedy, filled with enough comic bits to keep one grinning and chuckling all the way through. At the beginning Ann, for instance, offers to get the audience something to drink. Lisa says no, no, Mom; they’re fine. Ann goes offstage anyway and returns with a bagful off packaged snacks, which to Lisa’s mortification she tosses into the audience. And then there’s the running gag of Lisa’s exasperation (“We are so off track!”) when her scripted intentions get subverted.

Lisa means to present what she archly describes as “a multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community.” To do so she sets out to tell the story of her stay at an allergy clinic as well as the story of her mother’s neighborhood organizing, which Lisa rightly admires.

Ann shares some sharp observations about the racism she saw in her neighborhood, for instance the scare tactics real estate brokers used to spur white flight even as the municipal authorities began cutting schools and other resources. “This is how a slum is made,” Ann says (foreshadowing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s trenchant 2014 analysis ). Ann takes a stand and resists. She also relates how she once went to stay  at the home of black roommate in Baltimore—and witnessed personally what race hate was doing to communities of color.

Ann’s memory of the events Lisa relates, however, turns out to be quite contrary to Lisa’s, and their bickering about that is both telling and tickling. Add to that, the troupe of four actors Lisa has enlisted go off script in ways that frazzle Lisa laughably.

The amazingly versatile actors play at least three parts each: Laura Artisi (Joy, Dottie, A), Edward Christian (Howard, Head Nurse, D), Marquis D. Gibson (Jim, Nurse 2, Little Oscar, Big Oscar, C), and Lolita Marie (Lori/Kay/Mrs. Price/Cynthia, B). Each of these many characters is immediately distinct in both performance and wardrobe (for which credit goes to Costume Designer Danielle Preston). Ultimately the four actors (who go by their real first names, Laura, Edward, Marquis, and Lolita, break out of the roles Lisa has written for them and join in affectionate solidarity with Ann.

The inventive metatheatrics of this conceit are a thorough delight. Director Michael Bloom, who has directed Well before, clearly knows its every nuance. Audiences who have seen or will see the hit musical Fun Home, for which the real Lisa Kron wrote the Tony Award–winning book, will recognize her storytelling gifts. She kind of out-Pirandellos Pirandello.

Susan Sontag, who is referenced in Well, rightly reverentially, wrote an influential essay in 1977 called Illness as Metaphor. It was a searing argument against blame-the-sufferer moralizing about medical conditions. In Well, the playwright has the character of Lisa harbor a “wellness” judgment on her mother for how she was “able to heal a neighborhood” but “not able to heal herself.” And slowly the playwright takes the character Lisa to an inspiring and mind-blowing realization.

What comes through this performance with indelible eloquence—at a time when the health of our body politic has been severely compromised—is the connection between “wellness” judgmentalism and what’s morally wrong with framing the human costs of racism as a “social ill.”

With this extraordinary and prescient contribution to our understanding at this moment of reckoning about health care, Well at 1st Stage is as invigorating as theater gets.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes with no intermission.

Well plays through April 23, 2017, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

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