Lisa Kron’s Well may have been a big hit on Broadway in 2006, but its Midwest roots make it feel right at home in St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre. The autobiographical show features Lisa (played by Christina Baldwin), trying to make sense of her growing up in the Midwest, as a white, Jewish girl in a predominantly black neighborhood and as the daughter of a feisty, hard-working and chronically ill mother.
The play’s publicist describes it as “touching and original comedy for anyone who has ever had a mother,” which led me to expect a lightweight romp that would engage the heart more than the mind. Instead, I found a play that left me chewing on questions about performance, staging, allergies and families along with my after-preview burger and fries at next-door Great Waters Brewing Company.
Well is playing at Park Square Theatre, 408 St. Peter Street, St. Paul, through February 10. Ticket information 651-291-7005
Lisa and her mother, Ann (Barbara June Patterson), are complex characters whose conflicts are rooted more in a search for answers to tough life questions than in unresolved personal dynamics. They grapple with questions about illness and wellness, and especially why some people become well and others cannot. The question of wellness extends to communities as well, with flashbacks to Ann’s work in organizing their neighborhood during the 1970s.
Mom repeatedly steals the show, criticizing Lisa’s conception of the play and of life from her on-stage position in her recliner. A small supporting cast plays multiple parts—patients in an allergy clinic, people from the old neighborhood, and actors in the play, as they slip in and out of character, commenting on the play as they perform it. As the interruptions multiply, actors move in and out of time and place and character, but continue to hold the attention and affection of the audience.
Director Michael Dixon says it is impossible to say what Well is “about.”
“The truth is,” Dixon said in an interview with Matt Di Cintio, “the more the overall play tries to be about something, the more it gives way to the chaos and complications of a renegade but likeable life force: Mom. Within 90 minutes, Mom manages to subvert every aspect of her daughter’s play, which, in fact, does raise interesting questions about illness and health, difference and empathy, racial discrimination and integration.”
Neither saccharine nor sarcastic, the humor in Well recognizes the exasperated affection that underlies the conflict between mother and daughter, and lets the audience leave the theater liking both of them.
Mary Turck is the editor of the TC Daily Planet.