Well is supposed to be an avant-garde "multi-character theatrical exploration of health and illness in the individual and the community." I know this because Lisa Kron, the play's author and main character, says so repeatedly throughout the show. Or, in the case of Theatre Memphis' minimal and occasionally monotonous mounting of Well, the line is repeated by Kron's surrogate, local actor Laurie Cook McIntosh, a solid stand-in for the acclaimed author and frequent solo performer. Cook McIntosh, a tiny but forceful redhead known for her range and versatility, begins the show by stepping into the soft, sheltering, center-stage spotlight and telling her audience plainly (with only the faintest hint of self- mockery) that Kron's show isn't a play in the traditional sense but something else entirely.
"This play is not about my mother and me," she insists. But nobody will ever believe her. How can anyone believe that Well is a multi-character theatrical exploration making the unlikely comparison of racial integration in Michigan to allergies when dear old Mom is so obviously snoozing in a Laz-E-Boy recliner only a few feet away? And how can it not become a play about Lisa and her mother when Mom, though sick and slow-moving, winningly inserts herself into the storyline whenever Lisa allows her poetic license to interfere with the facts of her genuinely interesting life.
Martha Graber's performance as Ann Kron, the mysteriously afflicted antiques dealer turned community organizer, is quietly assured. Her gentle impositions into her daughter's stage life are full of complex ideas that refuse to be reshaped to fit her daughter's script.
Speaking of reshaping: Almost everything Well has to say about the relationship between reality, art, and memory has been reflected in Christopher McCollum's simple but effective set. It's nothing more than a blue square painted on a black surface. It looks like the kind of nonrepresentational abstraction painter Mark Rothko was producing at the end of the 1950s. But the fully abstract space is wrecked by pieces of a hardwood floor invading one quadrant. These naturalistic set elements lead to a hyperrealistic sliver of Kron's cluttered middle-class home that has been stuffed uncomfortably into a corner where it barely fits.
Well, although complete, is presented as Kron's impression of an unraveling work-in-progress. Cook McIntosh's best attempts to put her confused actors through their paces are undermined by Mom, who just wants to get everybody a Coke, dote on her talented daughter, and tell them stories about her hard-fighting days as a community organizer in Lansing, Michigan, where she was willing to buck popular opinion and do everything in her power to save her community from white flight. Supporting actors Emily Peckham, Lisa Lynch, Robert McIntosh, and Michael Higgenbottom play themselves as actors in Kron's play as well as a variety of other grotesquely exaggerated characters who all eventually find Mom more interesting than the play.
Robert McIntosh, Laurie's husband and frequent co-actor, is particularly affecting as a male nurse who can't stop talking about the wonders of laxatives and enemas. Lynch is also effective as a high school bully who keeps wandering, uninvited, through Kron's most vulnerable moments in her own play. It's unfortunate, however, that the supporting cast too often adopts the sing-song pace and soothing, therapeutic voice of a radio psychologist, turning this otherwise engaging comedy into a lullaby.
Director Joanna Helming has done a superb job mixing Kron's sometimes scattershot metaphors. She has not fared quite so well in presenting her vision in the round. The principal actors are sometimes blocked from view by the supporting actors, who line up like human shields between the audience and the action.
Critics have frequently, and accurately, compared Well to Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello's groundbreaking exercise in meta-theater. Like Six Characters, Well examines not only the subject matter at hand but also the limits of theatrical conventions. It takes a hard look at how easily storytelling can fail and fall apart and how faulty memories can sap all the richness from an otherwise compelling tale. Unlike Six Characters, which 87 years after its debut still feels edgy, Well comes off as a sweetly self-referential Hallmark special about mothers, daughters, allergies, and racial integration. It's avant-garde lite.
At Theatre Memphis through April 20th