Stage review: Biography, fiction lead to tale of self-awareness in 'Well'

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The last time we had Lisa Kron on a Pittsburgh stage, she was here in person, playing the (fictionally autobiographical) role of Lisa in her own one-woman play, "2.5 Minute Ride," at City Theatre. That was 2004, and the play ended up No. 2 on that year's Post-Gazette list of top 10 plays of the year.

Now she's back in the person of Daina Michelle Griffith at the increasingly valuable Off the Wall Productions in Carnegie, playing another Lisa in Ms. Kron's "Well," which was nominated for a Tony Award in 2006.

'Well'

Where: POff the Wall Productions, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

When: Through Dec. 28. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. 3 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $359; (seniors $20, students $5); www.insideoffthe wall.com or 724-873-3576.


It's not a solo show, like "2.5 Minute Ride." That was a narratively complex stand-up routine about her family, her childhood in Ohio, her lesbian partner and her trip with her elderly blind father to Auschwitz. "Well" focuses instead on Lisa and Ann, her mother, and it supports Lisa with five other actors, one playing Ann and the others a number of roles.

Actually, although Lisa, the playwright's alter ego, is definitely central, it's incorrect to say she's supported by Ann, who thinks of herself as at least a co-equal center of attention, no matter how much she may seem to defer to her writer daughter in a motherly, faintly passive-aggressive way. In fact, it's Lisa's inability to contain her mother within the exploratory narrative she thinks she's telling that provides the main conflict.

Lisa invites us on a primarily intellectual journey that she insists is about the relationship of chronic illness to the individual and the community -- hence the title, "Well," as in "wellness." But her memories and the feisty characters she invokes (not to mention the actors she has enlisted to help) keep rising up and commandeering the stage, as in "well ...," meaning the story has more than one side.

So Lisa sets out to interweave her mother's illness (diagnosed as endemic allergies) with her own time in a hospital specializing in allergies, plus her childhood, in which her mother struggled to keep their Chicago neighborhood free of racism. But the story keeps slipping off the tracks, largely because Ann won't be an exhibit in someone else's story.

"Stop hiding behind this play," she tells Lisa.

Now will her various childhood friends and rivals, hospital staff and others play along. They won't even stay in the story: Again and again we're reminded they are also actors playing roles, with snide remarks like "this downtown BS" (referring to off-off-Broadway). This self-conscious interweaving of biography, fiction, enactment and self-consciousness about enactment is lots of fun.

But more serious issues are not far to seek, mainly in metaphoric parallels between the self and the family, family and community, illness and health, conflicting memories, etc., as Lisa's careful theatrical constructs keep collapsing.

We're left with two dominant dramas: the relationship between mother and daughter, with the center of power continually shifting, and that between playwright, actors and audience, as the conventions of theater are continually subverted, redefined and subverted again.

I liked it a lot. Someone who wants more conventional identification with the story could find it frustrating.

No one can be anything but pleased with the acting, led by Ms. Griffith as Lisa, a role demanding intimate mastery of tones and facets. Her regression from smart tale-teller to frustrated daughter, with dips into childhood re-enactment, is feelingly portrayed. We laugh at her frustration but share it, too.

Virginia Wall Gruenert, Off the Wall artistic director, plays Ann with an admirable low center of gravity, her apparent reasonableness all the more frustrating to her daughter, who thinks she knows just how sick Mom is. It's the best thing I've seen her do.

The fine supporting ensemble is Tony Bingham, Linda Haston, Alan Bomar-Jones and Susie McGregor-Laine. Almost at random I remember Mr. Bingham's comically obsessive allergist, Ms. Haston's angry childhood enemy, Ms. McGregor-Laine's bitter hospital patient and Mr. Bomar-Jones' ironic actor-self, who just can't make sense of it all.

We can, though. We see Lisa's story as a revelation of more than she knows. A funny play about making a play, it has plenty to say about illness, wellness and community. But it is ultimately about how we relate to our families and through them, ourselves.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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