Chronic illness pitches families into persistent twilight. Months are marked by hospital stays and procedures, and bad days are the warp and woof of life while good days tumble through like thin gold coins in your hands.
Playwright Lisa Kron is familiar with the dappled rhythms of growing up with sickness, and her experiences yield unexpected comic richness and wry compassion in her Tony-nominated comedy “Well,” a regional premiere directed with robust humor by Kyle Donnelly.
Both Miss Kron and Miss Donnelly know how living in a “sick” house makes you a resident of a bizarro world where living with pain and persistent symptoms seems perfectly normal and feeling healthy seems as strange as a rash. They play up the absurdity to the hilt, plunging the audience (and the actors) into a screwball alternate universe where anything can happen and the fourth wall can be broken at any time.
The willy-nilly structure of “Well” can throw you for a loop, and often you wonder just how Miss Kron is going to tie together a rather ambitious aim for a one-act, which is meant to be a “universal exploration of sickness and wellness” that also discusses the importance of integration and the rigors of trying to fit into conventional society. It is most entertaining and emotionally resonant when concentrating on the loving, confounding relationship between the playwright, Lisa Kron (Emily Ackerman), and her mother Ann (Nancy Robinette).
Before the play even starts, we are immersed in illness as we take our seats and watch Ann sacked out in a recliner that is the center of her world. Kleenex at her elbow, magazines piled at her feet, a remote by her side, Ann has endured a long reign from this homely throne. A born pack rat and homebody, Ann has a cubbyhole both warm and smothering.
Her daughter Lisa, a nervy live wire, paces back and forth between her mother’s house and the vast expanse of her memory. She insists the show is not autobiographical, but her past keeps cropping up and interrupting the narrative flow. Ann, observing “Well” take shape from her corner of the stage, cannot help but intervene and offer “helpful” advice and corrections. The past also literally pops up in the form of Lori Jones (Donnetta Lavinia Grays, a dazzling dynamo in a variety of roles) a hilariously impudent childhood bully whom Lisa would like to edit out in her politically correct version of what it was like to grow up in an integrated, politically active neighborhood in Lansing, Mich.
Using a mixture of live action and interior monologue, Lisa grapples with the ramifications of living with a chronically exhausted mother and invites us to see her mother as she did, a passive victim of persistent bad health, someone who succumbed and gave in to her symptoms — a condition Lisa railed against in adulthood as she fought to embrace wellness and feeling good about her body. Yet what emerges is a markedly different portrait — that of an active, principled and quixotic woman who championed civil rights in her community and loved her children and her life fiercely and devotedly.
Part of what banishes the victim stereotype is Miss Robinette’s warmly engaging performance, so softly inviting and sharply observed at the same time. Her Ann refuses to be pigeonholed, and the complexities of her life spill over into Lisa’s more rigid recollections of life with mother. In contrast to Ann’s huggable hypochondriac, Miss Ackerman’s Lisa is all sharp angles and angst — although she does have a keen sense of humor about her loner childhood, as evidenced in priceless scenes in which she goes to class in fifth grade dressed like her obsession, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her stint in a smarmily vigilant allergy clinic.
Scenes between mother and daughter are interspersed with flashbacks that often fall apart at the drop of a hat, and this sort of free-form chaos requires an adaptable cast. Actors Scott Drummond, Marc Damon Johnson, Susan Lynskey and Miss Grays go from a variety of supporting roles to playing themselves with nimble ease.
The play does not adequately fulfill all the points in its agenda, and sometimes intimacy is compromised on the Fichandler Theatre’s vast stage. “Well” does not provide reasons why some people stay sick while others get better but instead shows how embracing illness and embracing health can both result in lives well-lived.
WHAT: “Well” by Lisa Kron
WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, selected noon matinees on Wednesdays. Through Oct. 14.
TICKETS: $52 to $66
WEB SITE: www.arenastage.org
MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS