- Alicia Roper (left) and Denny Dillon: Out of the playwright's mind, into viewers' hearts.
If you've ever written a little fiction -- from a short story in college to that unpublished novel now wedged under the broken leg of a table in the attic -- you're probably familiar with the sensation of characters overtaking the author. Once you set a handful of made-up folks in motion, they tend to veer off in unexpected directions; before long, you're just trying to hang on, transcribing their actions and taking dictation as they careen through their imaginary lives.
That sensation can be quite a rush, and it's why writers -- and especially non-writers -- should plan a trip to the Cleveland Play House, where Well is capturing the anarchic process of storytelling. This work defies easy categorization, since it's an autobiographical quasi-monologue in which other people show up -- some of them uninvited by playwright Lisa Kron, and with speaking roles that often call into question Kron's ability to develop a coherent theatrical work. In essence, this is a memory play that continually questions its own memory and in doing so creates, against all odds, a warm and touching story of familial devotion.
Right from the start, Lisa, the playwright-narrator, gets it all wrong when she states, "This is a play about illness and wellness; it's not about my mother and me." As Lisa tells it, her mother, Ann, has been sick most of her life with allergies that keep the plump, sixtyish woman planted on her overstuffed living-room chair. But at the same time, Ann has been active in working to integrate their neighborhood in Lansing, Michigan, by organizing parades and various social get-togethers. Over the years, Lisa has had a hard time resolving her mom's complex sickness-wellness persona: "She's an energetic woman trapped in an exhausted body." So Lisa confesses that she's using this theatrical exploration to help her come to grips with her mother's confounding nature.
Trouble is, Mom starts butting in. Seated on a smallish platform, decorated in nondescript midwestern schlock to represent her Lansing homestead, Ann is marooned on a large stage that's otherwise bare, save for some backstage drapes, lighting grids, and a couple of portable set pieces. Of course, the irrepressible Ann notices the audience arrayed before her and, much to Lisa's consternation, offers everyone something to drink and a few snacks, tossing small bags of chips into the seats. Having eliminated the fourth wall, Kron initiates a meta-theatrical exercise that would be crushed under its own cuteness, were it not for the playwright's refreshingly self-deprecating take on her life and her maternal soul mate.
As the play progresses, Lisa and Ann are joined by four other actors who portray different people from the Krons' life, including a black girl who torments little Lisa and the smarmy professionals who attend Lisa when she's admitted to a facility that treats -- you guessed it -- severe allergic reactions. The script cuts back and forth from present time to past, and then the various characters merge, as the medical people wander into Ann's domain and are entranced by her generous spirit and unaffected good humor. All the while, Lisa is working hard to suss out a pattern from these seemingly unconnected events, becoming progressively more frustrated until she just gives up, stomps up the stairs of her mother's house, and leaves the others to fend for themselves.
Although some scenes go on a bit too long, rehashing familiar territory, director Michael Bloom keeps the pace tight while allowing plenty of room for the heart behind Kron's arch staging conceits to be fully realized. And no one has a bigger heart than Ann, as played by Denny Dillon, whom some may remember as a Saturday Night Live cast member from 25 years ago. Dressed in a fusty housedress and padding around in Hush Puppy slippers, Dillon is adorable as she gently chides her daughter and warmly reaches out to the audience and other characters. Alicia Roper fashions daughter Lisa into an exact opposite in most ways: whippet-thin, easily agitated, and edgily sarcastic. But Lisa's love for her mother, whom she dubs a "housewife savant," pulses in every moment.
The supporting cast -- made up of Zandy Hartig, Jason Miller, Lelund Durond Thompson, and Bailey Varness -- handles the collection of ancillary roles with style. Even though the structure of the play is Pirandello lite, there are priceless insights that make it all worthwhile. When Lisa reflects back on an embarrassing childhood event she suffered through, she recalls how she longed to become an adult because "as an adult, you can just leave." Happily, there is little suffering and much to savor in this very healthy Well.