Sometimes, when you use the word “interesting’ to describe a show, it can be because you’re hiding how you really feel. More than once, I have left a particularly disheartening production and been asked what I thought. “Interesting,” I’d mumble, avoiding the string of expletives I could have easily deployed.
However, in the case of Well by Lisa Kron, now at Ensemble Theatre, it seems that interesting is the very best word to describe this superbly performed, intriguingly constructed piece of theater. And although the show seems to be gasping for air by the end of its 95-minute sprint through a collection of meta-theatrical feints and surprises, it’s a ride you should definitely experience.
It all begins very casually as Lara Mielcarek, who plays the playwright Lisa Kron, welcomes the audience and introduces us to her play and to Laura Starnik, who plays Lisa’s mother Ann. In doing so, Lisa makes clear that this play, which is being rehearsed as we sit there, is not about her and her mother. Definitely not. It’s about a “theatrical exploration of health and wellness and the integration of Lansing, Michigan.” Yeah, right.
With mom plopped in a La-Z-Boy for most of the show, Lisa and Ann interact with four other performers who play various characters from the Kron history. These include the Kron’s black next-door neighbors, a black girl who bullied Lisa in grade school, and folks Lisa met when she was an in-patient at an allergy treatment facility. The actors often morph into and out of character as they respond to Lisa’s directions, ending one scene and picking up on another with interludes of side conversations with mom.
Lisa Kron is a renowned playwright (Fun Home) and actor, and she knows how to put interesting words in the mouths of people who wander about on stage. And for the first 70 minutes of this play, it all works so wonderfully, under the deft touch of director Celeste Cosentino, that the whole enterprise feels almost giddy with invention and surprise.
This is aided in no small part by the engaging and amusing performance of Mielcarek, whose friendly demeanor as Lisa at the start is quickly peeled away to reveal a woman who is haunted and depressed by her mother’s history of various illnesses. These are physical issues that Lisa shared until she moved away to New York City and became healthy, but her mother never seemed to recover her health.
And Starnik, either slumped in her chair or padding softly and slowly around the set, quietly establishes Ann as a force of nature in a robe and scuffs, winning over the audience with her deadpan asides. Ann was a mover in her Lansing neighborhood, advocating for integration, and this mission comes across clearly. She is also a mess of free-floating symptoms that keep her chair-bound.
These two are ably supported by the other actors who take on multiple roles. Maya Jones is fierce and hilarious as Lisa’s playground tormentor Lori Jones, and Brian Kenneth Armour gives precise interpretations as both Big Oscar and Little Oscar, the drunk father and his son who live next to the Kron’s. In the allergy ward, April Needham demonstrates the agony of severe allergic reactions as Joy and Craig Joseph is the officious head nurse. And they all neatly register the confusion of being both actors and characters in Lisa Kron’s meta-exercise that attempts to answer a question that is unanswerable: Why do some people stay sick while other get well?
Even though the wind goes out of these billowing theatrical sails in the last 20 minutes, with a long story about Lisa’s Halloween misadventures ending shaggy-dog style and a bit too much repetition of previous conflicts, the play is mostly an exhilarating excursion. And, you know, it’s really interesting.
Through October 22 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org