Big, fat tears were rolling down my face by the end of Lisa Kron’s moving play, Well, which mocks, manipulates and defies dramatic conventions.
It received two Tony Award nominations when it opened in the States and while theatre as therapy is sometimes laboured, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps‘ Natalie Casey, was simply excellent as Lisa Kron, the playwright and narrator of her own story in this poignant play. Except, as you are told countless times by Lisa, this is not a play: it is a multi-character theatrical exploration of illness and wellness in an individual and a community.
However despite her attempts to use such theatrical devices to conceal the most painful chapters of her lifestory it overwhelms her, and the spotlight is shone very brightly into the darkest recesses of her complex relationship with her sick mother, to reveal all the agonies she encountered growing up as a gawky Jewish kid in the racially integrated neighbourhood her mother founded as well as her experience of living with debilitating allergies.
Armed with flashcards Lisa-as-narrator introduces us to a variety of protagonists; members of the community association her mother fronted, school chums and other patients on the allergy ward she spent time in as a teenager as they engage in competitive infirmity in this journey through illness to wellness.
The audience is thrown into Lisas life as soon as they arrive in the tiny downstairs space at Trafalgar Studios, and are confronted by Lisa’s supposed mother, Ann Kron, played by the truly formidable, Sarah Miles, who is more or less confined to a red leather Lazy Boy throughout. Hers is an excellent portrait of a fiery matriarch now reduced to a wizened heroine, who takes delight in talking directly to the audience and intterupting Lisa’s monologue.
Parallels between experiences of illness and racism are brought out via Krons maxim that you can never truly understand the suffering of others because you simply cannot not conceive of dealing with the world from a standpoint stripped of your wellness/whiteness.
The breaking down of the fourth wall throught provides relief and keeps you on your toes as the actors break out of character at the flicker of emotional tension, or alternatively Lisa herself shatters the moment.
Taking the reins as narrator becomes Lisas opportunity to re-write the traumatic parts of her childhood as a jaunty story, where pain and embarrassment becomes tragi-comedy, and the auteur always comes out on top and we cringe along side her as she reminisces about going to school dressed as Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on The Prairie fame.
But cracks begin to show in this staged, re-edited version of her life with the non-scripted arrival of a childhood bully who used to torment Lisa, but art mimics life, and this show eventually disintegrates with neat dramatic resolution becoming impossible, as her cast rebel, eventually all coming out of character, chiding her and then walking out on the performance.
Some say a critic is someone who looks into a microscope and sees his own eye, so may be my own back-story made me find this play so deeply affecting and amusing, but I walked out knowing that however hard you try for perfect rounded endings,they will evade you and that messy lives and illness make up the journey.