When Lisa Kron says near the beginning of her new show Well, now playing at the Public Theater's Martinson Hall, "This play is not about my mother and me," it's not immediately obvious whether she's trying to convince the audience or herself of this.
She continues by insisting that Well is a "theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community." But as her mother is apparently dozing in a LaZBoy placed in a partial living-room set stage left, it's a bit difficult to take Kron's words at face value. Can Well really be about anything other than the complex interplay between parents and children?
It can and is, though Kron's relationship with her mother is unquestionably central. In specific terms, Kron is concerned with integration, whether involving her mother's lengthy crusade for neighborhood racial harmony, Kron's own battle with debilitating fatigue resulting from food allergies, or just generally learning what can be taken from others (and what must be given in return) to become a more complete person.
These ideas combine into a show that entertains and provokes by turning familiar theatrical conventions upside-down. Kron is desperate to tell the story in her own uniquely theatrical vocabulary, while her mother wants everything presented in a straightforward, simple manner; in this battle of wills, each even attempts to impose her concept of "reality" on the play's other actors (Kron demands they stay in the world of the play; her mother offers to serve them drinks and refers to them by their real names).
As the show progresses, the question of who is really in control becomes ever murkier; Kron's theatrical fantasy world threatens to fall apart as her mother ingratiates herself to the cast members and to us. So convincing is all of this that the fact that Kron's mother is actually played by an actress (Jayne Houdyshell) is soon forgotten - she seems that real. In the play, Kron is determined to maintain solid control over her conventions, at least until she decides it's proper to tweak the audience with them. In Well, nothing is sacred.
That's just as it should be - half the fun in a play of this type is figuring out what the rules are and then watching to see if or when they'll be broken. (As it happens, in Well, nearly every scene is bursting with fun of this type.) That's not lost on the play's director, Leigh Silverman, who keeps the action buoyant while crisply depicting the ideological tug of war between Kron and her mother. Christopher Akerlind's lights and Allen Moyer's scenic design, both of which are equally at home in any aspect of Well's reality, are vital in assisting with this.
The play's other performers (Kenajuan Bentley, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Joel van Liew, and Welker White) occasionally play things a bit broadly, but handle the transitions between their multiple roles very well, and have exactly the right sense of comedy. (The scene in which they observe the results of Kron's theatrical breakdown and must deal with it is one of the season's funniest.)
Kron and Houdyshell, however, turn in the two most memorable performances. Their relationship is alternately caustic and warm, but it always feels true. They establish a mother-daughter rapport in the show's first moments that they're able to maintain and expand as they gradually come to understand one another better, and they prove equally loving (and moving) when fighting, reconciling, or just suffering through life's everyday squabbles. The believability of their relationship is key in grounding the play and allowing Kron the freedom for the abundant humor and unusual insights that are as integral to Well as the exploration of this mother-daughter bond.
While Kron succeeds at contrasting the health and rebirth of her neighborhood with that of herself, she does fail in one area: she has, in the end, written a play very much about her and her mother. That's part of the brilliance of Well, and what gives it such a universal, almost celebratory feeling. Sometimes the best things come about through hard work and sometimes they come about without our being aware of it. The method (or combination of methods) that led to Well are irrelevant; all that matters is that this hilarious and perceptive play has arrived.