Lisa Kron is a writer of memory plays that dramatize stories from her life (“101 Humiliating Stories,” “2.5 Minute Ride”) or the lives of others (“Fun Home”) that tend to fall between straight theater and quirky performance art.
They also tend to be charming, thought-provoking and intimate affairs, and her 2004 one-act comedy “Well” – currently on stage at Ensemble Theatre – is no exception.
Within minutes of walking onto the performance space, the actor portraying the playwright Lisa Kron (Lara Mielcarek) tells the audience that “this play is about sickness and wellness – why some people are sick and other people are well.” The play, she adds, “is a vehicle for theatrical exploration of these issues. It is not a play about me and my mother.”
Well, yes it is. The psychology of sickness – that is, how we manage our own illnesses and handle the illnesses of loved ones – is something we have all confronted. But “Well” is most certainly a personal journey for the playwright and her mother Ann (Laura Starnik), who has been invited onto the stage to serve as a visual aide and case study.
And “theatrical exploration” is a significant understatement. This play is so meta-theatrical that the actors (April Needham, Maya Jones, Brian Kenneth Armour and Craig Joseph) don’t just step out of character to comment on the story they are in; they hijack the production by questioning the playwright’s storytelling.
It is this flexibility of form, these intriguing internal contradictions, and the remarkably authentic and funny performances turned in by this ensemble that gives this play its contagious charm. And it is this charm that allows the play’s hard-to-swallow medicine about the importance of self-healing as individuals who are ill and as a society that is suffering to go down a bit easier.
Mielcarek, always a daring performer, bravely exposes Lisa’s deep-rooted vulnerabilities and boldly puts on display her too-large-to-fit-in-the-overhead-compartment emotional baggage. Director Celeste Cosentino gives the actor license to separate herself from scenic designer Walter Boswell’s purposefully stagey set pieces in order to fully engage the audience. Engage she does, for when Mielcarek makes eye contact it is unavoidable and unbreakable.
Starnik, whose Ann is largely limited to a La-Z-Boy due to debilitating allergies that sap her strength, spends the evening doing all those smothering things mothers do. She insists that the audience accept assorted snacks, which she tosses at us. Her personal disclosures have no filter. She offers her daughter unwanted advice and much needed but unappreciated perspective. And she manages to be irresistibly adorable while doing so.
It is not until the final moments of the production, when Ann insists that Lisa “come out from behind the play and talk to me," that Lisa comes to terms with all the things she and Ann have in common. And in the wonderfully written and performed monologues that follow, straight theater and quirky performance art meet comfortably in the middle.