“My mom firmly believes in two things. Allergies and racial integration,” says Lisa, the grown and healthy daughter of Ann, who is sick and mostly confined to what looks like every 1970s basement rec room. Fake wood paneling, trophies, and an avocado green shag rug share space with paper and crafts clutter, infomercial stuff in its original boxes, and a basket of knitting. There’s even a candle snuffer collection. “My mom collects candle snuffers,” swoons one of the characters, enchanted with the time capsule scene he’s entered.
In Well, a thought-provoking and funny show performed by Wellesley Repertory Theatre (WRT) at Wellesley College through February 10, playwright Lisa Kron in a loosely autobiographical work has transported us to the small city of Lansing, Michigan. The production marks the directorial debut of WRT’s new Artistic Director Marta Rainer. She took over the job after Nora Hussey stepped down last spring after 28 years at the Ruth Nagel Jones Theater. With Well, Rainer carries on the WRT tradition of telling the stories of complex women with a work that grapples with big questions, in this case of sickness, health, and race.
Don’t tell Ann, played with world-weary, no-nonsense flair by Lisa Foley, her neighborhood’s new black families send the area straight downhill. She doesn’t buy it. What Ann sees is clear-cut racism advanced by a City Hall that diverts resources from a place the moment black families set up household. Grinch-like, the city goes so far as to actually dig up and remove newly planted flowers from previously tended traffic circles. Ann, despite her ongoing health issues, has a plan to fight back, and she harnesses the power of the people through a neighborhood association. If the city messes with their neighborhood, Ann brags that on a moment’s notice she can have 100 black grandmothers parked at a local government meeting, with no intention of going anywhere until their complaints are addressed.
It’s all in the nuances
“Looking back, my mother was kind of a housewife savant,” says Lisa played with frenetic, neurotic energy by Sebastian Ryder. Indeed, Ann was no ordinary mother of the time. The woman was what today would be called “woke”. When in a flashback scene a young Lisa is having a blast in the backyard playing a call-and-response game with her neighborhood pal (“Hey, white girl”…”Hey, black boy”…”Hey, white girl”…”Hey, black boy”…), Ann tells her she can’t do that anymore. Lisa can’t use the words “black boy” even though, as Lisa points out, he is a black boy (played with great spirit by Joshua Wolf Coleman). Ann patiently explains the historical meanings of calling a black man “boy” and how as a white person Lisa has to understand those meanings and conduct herself appropriately. Whoa. Preach it, Ann.
Set designer David Towlun and Props Master Kim Towlun do an impressive job covertly inviting the audience to judge Ann for her own poor health. If Ann’s allergies are so debilitating, why doesn’t she get rid of the decades-old, dust mite-infested shag rug? Everyone knows that’s a trigger. And what about the smokeless ashtray, up on a shelf and unused, true, but what’s it doing there in the first place? Tell the truth, Ann, because it looks like someone at sometime was smoking in that house. Everyone knows that’s a trigger. We’re led to conclude that a few lifestyle tweaks just might cure Ann of her “allergies”.
The adult Lisa suspects as much also, and herein lies the crux of the play: Why are some people sick and why do some people get over being sick and become well? Lisa was also an allergy sufferer, hospitalized and all, yet she became well. Maybe amazing grace saved her. Maybe Lisa is blind and cannot see what her mother is going through.
We get to explore all of the action up close and personal through extensive use of the theatrical construct known as breaking the fourth wall. That’s the imaginary “wall” that exists between the actors on stage and the audience. You know the usual drill. The actors on stage inhabit their space, and the audience inhabits its space. We all pretend we can’t see one another, and that’s how theater works. In this play, expect the actors to all but converse with you. Some theater-goers find breaking the fourth wall tiresome, a lazy playwright’s way of telling the audience what to think instead of showing character development. The way Kron goes all-in with the technique is what makes the fourth-wall breakdown work. With it, we’re invited to more closely inhabit the very chaos of each scene.
Meanwhile, Lisa is trying to direct a play-within-a-play of her own here, people, but her actors won’t cooperate. They’re too busy fussing over Lisa’s mother. Ann, for her part, gets that her daughter is doing her theater thing, but there are historical inaccuracies in her daughter’s vision that she just can’t abide.
Give yourself over to the madness, whether you’re in sickness or in health, because this is where the comedy and the laughs are. If you’ve ever been sick or known someone who’s sick, I hope to God you’ve used gallows humor from time to time as a coping mechanism. It’s the only way this bunch is getting by, for sure.
WITH: Sebastian Ryder (Lisa); Lisa Foley* (Ann); Daniel Boudreau (Howard Norris/Nurse); Jade Guerra (Kay/others); Joshua Wolf Coleman* (Little Oscar, Big Oscar); Daniel Breaker (Jim/others); Christina Kirk (Joy/others); Diana Lobontiu (Joy/Dottie)
* denotes Member of Actors’ Equity Union
By Lisa Kron; directed by Marta Rainer; sets by David Towlun; costumes by Chelsea Kerl; lighting by Graham Edmondson; sound by George Cooke; props by Kim Towlun; production manager, David Towlun; assistant director, stage manager, Lindsay Garofalo*; Leila Silberstein; assistant stage manager, Kim Burton; assistant production manager Addie Pates; vocal coach, Paul Michael Valley; box office manager, Audrey Powers; set carpenter Ben Lieberson.
At Wellesley Repertory Theatre, Wellesley College (tickets here)
Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission