Why are some people healthy and some people sick? That's the question defining Well, Lisa Kron's 2004 play about her relationship with her perpetually ill mother. But is it the right question? Is the right person asking it? And what do the words "healthy" and "sick" mean anyway?
Those are some of the thoughts that filled my brain after I saw Profile Theatre's new production of Well, which gleefully embraces Kron's love of complication. Rather than hunt for straightforward answers, the play delights in raising disquieting uncertainties that transform the narrative into an entertainingly nasty satire of Kron's own ambitions—and asks the cast and director Josh Hecht to navigate some fantastically jarring twists (spoiler alert: They succeed with grace and gusto).
Well stars Allison Mickelson as a version of Lisa Kron, which is perfect casting since she also starred in Profile's 2018 production of Kron's autobiographical play 2.5 Minute Ride (Well and Anna Deavere Smith's Let Me Down Easy mark the conclusion of the company's 2018-19 season devoted to the works of Kron and Smith). Yet while the Lisa of Ride had a zen cheeriness, the Lisa of Well is a solemn visionary who begins the story by announcing that she is creating a play about health, sickness and how her mother Ann (Vana O'Brien) fought for racial integration in the Lansing, Mich., neighborhood where she raised Lisa.
To further her mission of entertainment and enlightenment, Lisa has brought her mother to the theater—the set, an Idaho-shaped chunk of Ann's living room designed by Daniel Meeker, looks like it was torn from its foundations and shipped to Portland. It is a place that is populated not only by Lisa and Ann, but by four other actors (La'Tevin Alexander, Jennifer Lanier, Michael Mendelson and Eleanor O'Brien) who play themselves playing characters (got that?), including members of the neighborhood association that Ann headed and residents of the allergy clinic where Lisa was once a patient.
It isn't long before Lisa's play within the play goes epically awry. Not only is she forced to confront the problems with her simplistic characterization of her mother's activism, but her actors are often distracted by Ann (in a delightful scene, Alexander admires her collection of candle snuffers). It also doesn't help that Lisa's lofty goals are impeded by frequent cameos by her childhood nemesis Lori (Lanier), who memorably humiliates Lisa by knocking a pile of note cards out of her grasp and sending them soaring into the audience.
Mickelson's body language is fascinating whenever Lori confronts Lisa—in one scene, she arches her back in terror, bending as far as her spine will allow. It's an image that suggests that for all her poise and bravado, Lisa is still plagued by youthful hang-ups. These include her tortured bond with her mother, which is tinged with childlike bitterness. Lisa Kron the character uses her art to control, dominate and irritate Ann, and the play is always eager to catch her in the act.
Well's climax is a fantastically cruel and funny scene in which Lisa accuses her mother, who suffers from severe exhaustion, of consciously choosing to be unwell. Unfortunately, it is followed by a series of events that lend credence to one of Kron's best lines: "This avant-garde meta-theatrical thing will just bite you in your ass." While Well comes across as Kron's way of deflating her pretensions, its conclusion should have acknowledged the fact that self-deprecation is a pretentious act—a pre-emptive strike that involves humbling yourself so that you can't be humbled by others. This blind spot doesn't diminish the charms of Well, but it does hint at unexplored comedic avenues that could have armed Kron with even more satirical firepower.
Yet Well's few failures are a testament to its many successes. If Kron stumbles, it is because she dares to trek into the uncharted wilderness that lies between life and art. Her writing may not be perfect, but it is always brave, and it challenges you to match her voracious intellectual appetite. Yes, the avant-garde meta-theatrical thing can bite you in the ass. But the best thing about Well is that it has teeth.
SEE IT: Well is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., profiletheatre.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 and 7:30 pm Sunday, through June 15. No shows June 6, 8, 12. No 7:30 pm show June 9. $20-$36.