Funny? Serious? 'Well' is hard to describe

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Michael Toscano

Elizabeth Pierotti and Audrey Bertaux star as mother and daughter in Well at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner, Va. The autobiographical show bounces between past and present, comedy and seriousness.
Photo by Teresa Castracane

Well, now. How to describe Well — the quirky, perspective-shifting, serio-comic play from New York actor and writer Lisa Kron? That, as they say in the theater, is the question. 

What you see at 1st Stage, a non-profit theater in Tysons, Va., may depend on what you bring into the theater with you.

It’s a mother-daughter play for some. Others may see it as an examination of personal responsibility for our own health. And there’s the role of community in racial reconciliation, too.

With a cleverly deconstructed format, the play cannot be pigeonholed. So maybe we should begin by looking at the playwright.

Kron is a Tony Award-winner for writing lyrics and book for the musical Fun Home a couple of years ago. She has also written a few plays, including Well, which have received warm critical praise.

Kron is founding member of a noted theater company, she performs as a monologist, and has acted in TV shows including Law and Order and Sex and the City.

So, she’s not one to be described efficiently. That’s a good thing in life. Not so good for a reviewer trying to quickly explain how she and this fascinating play are what they are.

Healing on several levels

Kron brings to her work a beguiling mix of poignancy and sharp, quick stabs of humor.

She has made herself, and her mother, the central characters in Well. Her on-stage persona here is what it felt like to be an outsider growing up in the late 1960s and ‘70s in Lansing, Mich. — Jewish in a Christian community where her mother was a social activist on racial matters. 

The Kron family has a history of illness, and society has a racial illness infecting black-white relations. We see Kron, the character, trying to mount a play (within this play) that ties the family’s healing to the town’s healing.

But — and here is where it starts to get complex and thought-provoking — the now-mature playwright in real life is obviously aware that there is something overshadowing all that, and it is, of course, her relationship with her mother.

The Kron character loves and admires her mom, but does not want to be like her in several important respects. So even as the character Lisa is telling us this is not a play about mothers and daughters, the playwright Lisa is telling us (by what she allows us to see) that it is. Confused yet?

Don’t be afraid, or confused. It’s difficult to describe. But it’s quite a bit of fun to see, and actually easy to follow and understand.

The production is so elegantly crafted, nimbly acted, and deftly directed by 1st Stage first-timer Michael Bloom, that it all washes gently over you for a thoroughly entertaining 100 minutes. (It could use an intermission at a perfect point about one hour in, but there is none.)

Past and present converge

Kron has starred in the play — as herself — in New York and elsewhere. Here, “Lisa Kron” is played with engaging self-awareness by 1st Stage newcomer Audrey Bertaux.

She talks directly to us, describing how she is weaving several themes from her younger life together for the stage. The “present” and the past begin to mix and merge, biographical events played out in a fractured version of a memory play.

Kron’s mother Ann ends up sharing stage time with the playwright’s character. Returning 1st Stage actor Elizabeth Pierotti plays the mom with tight discipline, walking a very fine (and shifting) line between humor and drama. Kron describes her as an “energetic person in an exhausted body.”

Ann is funny while interfering with her daughter’s portrayal of their life’s events, even winning over the allegiance of the other actors, who, while playing multiple roles, go in and out of character as they deal with the woman who exists only in memory here.

But Pierotti finds real-life grit when talking about her work to make a racially-mixed community cohesive, or when dealing with her failing body. 

It’s sort of a play-within-a-play, but it’s more intricate than that. The Lisa character tells us we’re seeing a “multi-character theatrical exploration.”

Engaging with the audience

The six cast members don’t just break the “fourth wall” between actor and audience, they demolish it, stomp on the rubble, and then play with the pieces. Dialogue is sharp, incisive.

Lisa — Bertaux — talks to us in a pool of light in a neutral space, still the monologist. At other times, she is engaging with (the memory of) her mom, or with the increasingly confused actor-characters playing people from her life.

Her mom, alive in memory, occupies center stage, in a hyper-realistic version of an overstuffed living room. She’s mostly confined to a recliner and seems not all that well, physically.

Interestingly, Lisa’s space —while talking to us or dealing with people from her life or the actors playing them — is sterile and artificial. Just a few props in a barren space.

But Mom, or the memory of Ann Kron, is in the beautifully detailed living room designed by Luciana Stecconi. The psychological implications of that alone could take another few pages to explore.

We never meet Lisa’s dad, mentioned briefly as being present in the home. There’s a brother, too. So where are these men in her life? Maybe that’s another play.

Laura Artesi, Marquis D. Gibson, Lolita Marie and Howard Christian are the actors playing the actors playing a variety of people from Lisa’s life. Each offers carefully calibrated versions of reality as they switch perspectives of time and space. 

Artesi and Marie deserve special mention in their roles as two women Kron meets in an allergy clinic — two finely etched portrayals of women trying to cope with a physical challenge that can’t be pinned down (and may not even be real).

So, did this reviewer like this production? He liked it very much. Is it perfect? No. It’s really good, entertaining and thought-provoking.

But the kinetic nature of the shifting perspectives of time and reality do eventually dilute the messages just enough to take a slight toll on our ability to absorb them.

But does it work? Is it worth it? Absolutely, yes.

Well continues through April 23rd at 1st Stage, located at 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons, Va.

Show times: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Ticket prices: $30 for adults, $27 for those 65 and older, and $15 for students and military members. There is general admission seating.

For tickets and information, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or visit www. 1ststagetysons.org. You may also email the box office at boxoffice@1ststagetysons. org. 1st Stage is wheelchair accessible.

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