Lisa Kron’s Well is not about her mother. She tells us this at the start of the show, but somehow her mother ends up hijacking the play, much to Lisa’s exasperation. Despite Lisa’s grand intentions of staging “a multi-character theatrical exploration of issues of health both in the individual and in a community,” it’s her mother, Ann Kron, who forces Lisa to confront her own deeply buried feelings with moments of raw emotion. Presented in a meta-theatrical manner, Echo Theatre’s production of Well is a hilarious, charming, and often brutal rumination on health, race, and mother-daughter relationships that simultaneously entertains while toying with our perceptions of theater.
First produced at the Public Theater in New York in 2004, Well played briefly on Broadway two years later and earned Tony nominations for both of its lead actresses (one of which happened to be playwright Kron). Embodying Lisa in Echo Theatre’s production is the eminently talented Kristin McCollum, our tour guide through Lisa’s sometimes questionable memories of growing up white and Jewish in racially tense 1960s Michigan. Lisa’s mother, Ann, was once the leader of the Westside Neighborhood Organization, a social initiative designed to integrate blacks and whites through friendly gatherings. But we come to find that Ann’s motivated moments are rare; she has been sick (or so she tells us) with a vague yet sinister bout of allergies for decades and observes life mainly from her comfy, tattered La-Z-Boy.
That recliner resides on one half of Jeffrey Schmidt’s extremely effective stage, surrounded by the knick-knacks and bric-a-brac of Ann’s cozy if somewhat messy home. On the other side is Lisa’s theatrical domain: a blank space consisting of a stool, a stand to hold notes, and a curtain concealing easily moved props and set pieces that become everything from her childhood neighborhood to the Chicago allergy clinic where she finally travelled to cure her own illness. Director Pam Myers-Morgan has cleverly cut straight through the center of the Bath House’s black box space; the stage’s orientation means we become intimate observers on both sides of the action. As a warning: if you’re not the interactive type, avoid the first row.
Just as any author of a fictitious piece is wont to do, Lisa edits, compresses, exaggerates, and fabricates the people and scenes that support her theories and storyline. Ann, however, is there to call her out on any autobiographical inaccuracies. Sylvia Luedtke, even when dozing, proves an endearing yet commanding sparring partner for McCollum. Watching these two women engage in classic mother-daughter conversations is a treat. You don’t always know what’s going to happen next—and indeed, in this show, anything might—but you know it’s going to be entrancing.
Supporting Lisa in her theatrical endeavor is a quartet of actors (David Jeremiah, Neely Jonea’, Molly Milligan, and Jordan Willis) who embody various characters. But in keeping with the untraditional format of the play, these actors are free to break character, question the playwright, and even revolt. When they become more interested in Ann’s version of events than Lisa’s, the situation becomes fascinating and frustrating bait, dangling provocatively in front of the spotlight-craving playwright.
Well is a challenging piece of theater, but a rewarding one as well. At a tight 90 minutes, it still manages to touch on and explore some pretty heavy themes while providing laugh after surprising laugh. As a bonus, there is absolutely no adjustment time with the characters; we fully believe in Lisa, Ann, and their assortment of helpers from the get-go. Part of this can be attributed to the material, but a healthy share of accolades falls to the cast and creative team of this production. After viewing, you might be compelled to reexamine your childhood, call your mother, or get a flu shot. Might as well do all three.
Photo: (From left) Kristin McCollum and Sylvia Luedtke in Echo Theatre’s Well (Credit: Pam Myers-Morgan).