UR Theatre’s production of ‘Well’ is a study in just how unwell we all are
Why am I well and you’re sick? Why am I sick, but less sick than you? Why did I get well and you didn’t?
Those questions are at the heart of the matter in Lisa Kron’s autobiographical “memory” play Well.
Ms. Kron was the star, author and would-be main character of Well, when it made its way to Broadway. This curiosity gave some added resonance to the autobiographical nature of the piece.
At The University of Richmond’s Cousins Theatre, Lisa is played by the actress Leslie Gaines.
However the play starts well before the audience comes in.
Preset on stage is an older woman asleep on a worn and cozy looking Lay-Z-Boy.
You sit down, wave to your friends and then you notice her again. But this time you can’t look away. The actress is mesmerizing in her sleep. It is the troubled sleep of a very ill woman. Pains wake her, so she adjusts. She purses her lips and tries to get through it. You’re not sure if she’s really asleep or in that uncomfortable half sleep where the jabs of life are free to enter at will.
Before the first word is spoken you have been treated to a Master Class in acting. You know most of what you need to know about this woman, this house and the life that has gone on inside of it.
No surprise. This actress is Catherine Shaffner.
Ms. Shaffner is one of two guest Equity artists (along with Durron Tyre) brought in by The University of Richmond’s Theatre and Dance Department to mentor the students. “Equity” refers to Actor’s Equity, the union for actors and other creative stage persons.
Ms. Kron as autobiographical playwright digs into the bag of theatrical devices to present what she says is “an exploration of fact into theatre.”
The play uses some notorious tools to do its heavy lifting: composite characters, compressed events and even (Lord help us) exaggeration to heighten dramatic and comic effect.
Ms. Kron is obviously — shall we say — inventive when it comes to exploring her own past.
Ms. Kron installs a “fact checker” into the script so that she doesn’t veer too far from the truth. The fact checker is her mother, Anna.
It’s an ingenious device. Kron attempts autobiography but is not allowed to sugar coat it or leave out parts because her mother is there to keep her straight.
Lisa welcomes the audience. Her mother welcomes the audience. Lisa assures us that although she is the one talking and although her mother is on stage, it is not about them or their relationship.
Lisa assures us that we are invited to “explore” theatrical devices in search of the truth of her own recovery. Her subjects are illness and integration, in both the social and the cosmic senses. Since her mother is an inveterate invalid and the woman who spearheaded the racial integration of the Lansing, Mich., neighborhood where Lisa grew up, Ann Kron provides a conveniently close-to-hand Exhibit A.
When Lisa’s narrative is interrupted by her mother’s corrections and interjections, Lisa becomes frustrated over losing control of her project. There is method to playwright Kron’s madness. What we see on stage IS the “exploration.” Lisa puts her mother onstage just so the investigation stays honest and that the “memoirist” doesn’t embellish.
But any child who thinks they can contain their emotional connection to their parent on a note card is fooling themselves. “Well,” directed by Professor Walter Shoen turns out to be about the mysterious mother-daughter relationship.
What makes this play much more than a deconstructed theatrical exercise is the way it keeps finding wells of emotional depth that are both messy and glorious.
Ms. Shaffner’s Ann Kron retains an anchoring authenticity that guarantees that “Well” opens doors of insight and emotion that no other play in Richmond is unlocking right now.
From the moment she awakens from that troubled slumber, startled awake at the audience watching her and greets them with an “Oh, hello,” Ms. Shaffner becomes the perfect parental foil. She faces the challenges of all bed ridden persons: hygiene, narcolepsy and dependency. She engenders both affection and embarrassment for her daughter.
Ann has an undeniable emotional hold on her daughter. It’s the effect that Ms. Kron describes so eloquently when she speaks of what happens when grown children, who feel they have gained perspective on their past, return to the family homestead: “You realize that your parents live in an alternative universe where your therapy has no power.”
Fueling Ms. Shaffner’s portrayal is the paradoxical mix of energy and exhaustion that seems to seep from her very pores. Despite her prior civic work, she has always been afflicted by a paralyzing lethargy she attributes to unidentifiable allergies. Lisa Kron grew up assuming that “the mysterious family illness” was her legacy. And at 19, she left college to be treated in an allergy clinic in Chicago.
Much of Ms. Gaines running narrative centers on her avoidance of the other patients at her clinic, and, by extension, her mother.
Ms. Kron is also troubled by imaginary, offensive characters from her childhood creeping into her narrative uninvited.
Why did she get well and her mother didn’t? The realization that she may have been psychologically dependent on her mother’s illness lets Ms. Gaines explore the real, inexplicable pain and bewilderment under her everyday mask.
Ms. Gaines spends most of her play in soliloquy.
Soliloquies are different from monologues because soliloquies are always alone and either to yourself, to someone who is not there or, as in this case, to the audience. A monologue is a long speech but usually takes place within a scene with other people.
Ms. Gains connects well with her audience. She has an affable personality and handles the difficult rhythms of the piece very well. She is an intelligent, thoughtful scene partner, especially with her mother.
Whether by direction or choice, she could have used the space more effectively making sure to include all areas of the audience. Filling an empty space is difficult to master.
Durron Tyre is also an Equity Master for these students. An alumni of countless Richmond musicals and plays, Mr. Tyre’s assignment was to anchor and teach the students how to be part of an ensemble.
Ensemble acting is very difficult. You are called on to zip on and off stage, play multiple characters, do quick costume, hair and make-up changes and sometimes just be background while someone else is talking.
Being background is not easy. You have to keep your characterization going. You cannot check out and wait for your next line. You have to be present and active while modulating yourself to keep focus where it belongs, on someone else.
Tyre and the ensemble were a lot of fun. Tyre himself played multiple crazy men, either literally or in that hyperactive guy-with-big-hair way.
Another standout was Hayley Lawrence who nailed playing a 9-year-old offensive brat.
Josafath Reynoso’s set was extraordinarily good. Classic and filled with character. It was a space that carried the decades of living within it. Johann Stegmeir’s costumes gave me a little twitch. Bright geometric patterns that we all threw out in the 80’s. Yellows and reds. Like electroshock colors. Much else was right on the mark. Meg Clark’s lighting design does what I like lighting designs to do, be unobtrusive.
Walter Schoen did a marvelous job of finding the deep emotional resonances in the script.
The shame is that these plays at UR usually only run for three performances. I wish more people could have seen this excellent production.
University of Richmond Department of Theatre and Dance will stage David Mamet’s Race November 17-20, 2016 and the Nexus University Dancer’s Annual Spring Showcase performs February 22-26, 2017, and the musical Godspell April 14-16, 2017.
The University of Richmond continues to be a place where exciting projects benefit student and audience alike.November 21, 2016
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