by Beki Pineda
WELL – Written by Lisa Kron; Directed by Stacy D’Angelo. Produced by Firehouse Theater Company (presented at the John Hand Theater, 7653 East 1st Place, Denver) through July 20. Tickets available at 303-562-3232 or firehousetheatercompany.com.
This is not really a play. As written by Lisa Kron, it’s a “multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness.” And it’s definitely NOT about her Mother – although her Mother is present on stage at all times reclining in a simulation of her living room. It’s also a solo performance – but it has other people in it. Sounds confusing, right?? However, as played, it is as clear as a bell. Except for the nine-year-old belligerent Black girl that keeps interrupting scenes and the other actors who can’t quite figure out what they are supposed to be doing and her Mother who is only trying to help.
Poor Lisa is just trying to get through the script she wrote which ponders the question “Why are some people sick and other people are well?” To do so, she takes us through her Mother’s life-long battle with “allergies” and her personal difficulties growing up in an environment that accepted and encouraged ill health. She has hired and rehearsed four other actors to appear in scenes with her that depict her time in an allergy clinic, her days growing up in a diverse neighborhood, and her relationship with her mother . . . . although the play is NOT about her mother. While not trying to be humorous, Lisa’s adventures nevertheless play out as funny in spite of herself. The hired actors become enamored with her sweet caring mother and frustrated with the many interruptions to their scenes to the point that they finally walk off the stage and won’t return. So Lisa decides that’s where the intermission will be.
They come back but things have clearly spiraled out of Lisa’s control and the humor continues. Until a scene in a medical facility when one of the hired actresses – Ghandia – turns the whole play on its ear by describing in vivid detail the frustration of being chronically ill and not being able to do anything about it. A hush fell over the room and suddenly it became important to listen and understand what the message of this “exploration” really was. Is she talking about physical pain or the racial disturbances of the 60’s and 70’s her mother fought against? The adventure isn’t over – but finally even the actress playing her mother must break character to let Lisa know where she has gone off track and allow her real mother a voice. In a touching finale, Lisa reads a speech that the real Ann once made to her neighborhood association that pleaded for a true understanding of integration. Using the metaphor of physical illnesses, Lisa has subtly commented on the state of social unrest and her mother’s activism.
Julie Kaye Wolf comes off a winning streak of roles – having previously played Elizabeth Proctor in THE CRUCIBLE and Annie Sullivan in THE MIRACLE WORKER at this same theatre – to create a determined but befuddled Lisa. Her intentions are so good, but her methods just don’t seem to work. She stops and starts erratically, but when she finally loses her temper and stands up for herself, she displays a fearless streak. Kerry Beebe as Ann gives us a warm loving mother well aware of her daughter’s type of play. She makes it clear she doesn’t want to be a part of the whole proceedings, but finds herself stuck in the spotlight. She doesn’t “even like having my picture taken,” she protests. But she remains supportive of her daughter throughout even though her memories of the incidents being acted out are quite different from the way Lisa remembers them.
The four actors who assist with the “exploration” are Ghandia Johnson as the insolent little girl who keeps interrupting and terrorizing Lisa; Johanna Jaquith who plays her deeply disturbed roommate at the allergy clinic; Jack Mariotti and Michael Bateman play medical personnel, neighbors like Big Oscar, and themselves reacting to the chaos happening around them. They all flow easily from scene to scene only gradually revealing their confusion and uncertainty about what was going on. While working at cross purposes, these six actors perform together flawlessly to tell Lisa’s story.
Stacy D’Angelo’s direction shows an understanding of the multi-layers of this script while finding the humor in the situations depicted. The set – designed and built by Jeff Jesmer – provides a neutral zone for the “play” and a cluttered but semi-organized living space for Mom. The lighting design by Emily Maddox creates a “safe” spot for Lisa to address the audience where no one else can hear her – or so she thinks.
I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a play Kron had written as a memorial to her mother. But it was easy to discover that WELL was first performed in 2004 and arrived on Broadway in 2006 (playing for only two months) while her mother lived till 2017. One can only imagine what her reaction was to seeing a version of herself on stage. As an audience member, I can only wonder if this is what her mother was really like.
A WOW factor of 9!!