As actress Lisa Kron keeps reminding the audience, Well is "not a play about my mother and me...it’s a theatrical exploration" of universal truths of why healthy people are healthy, sick people are sick, and the importance of racially integrated communities. Thankfully, the fact that Lisa’s mother is parked in a La-Z-Boy recliner on stage punctures any pretensions you might fear from such a statement. This critically lauded show offers the same mix of belly laughs and social commentary at the Huntington as it did on Broadway last season.
The play - excuse me, theatrical exploration - zips between episodes from Lisa’s childhood in Lansing, Michigan, where her eternally plagued with energy-sapping-allergies mother Ann (Mary Pat Gleason) is building a harmoniously integrated community, and a Chicago residential clinic where college-age Lisa is cured of her allergies. "The two main things we believe in," Lisa says of her family, "are allergies and racial integration."
But try as Lisa might to use montages of community events to smooth over the bumpy realities of her childhood and her mother’s activism, a bullying little girl (a stompingly wonderful Donnetta Lavinia Grays, whose pigtails alone are worth a round of applause) menaces the young Lisa and keeps disrupting the action. As much as Lisa might want to dismiss her mother’s illness and the allergies suffered by her fellow clinic patients as so much hypochondriac hooey, the jarring truth of anaphylactic shock crops up. And as much as the show is anchored by Lisa Kron (nominated for a Tony Award last season for playing herself), her mother keeps stealing the focus. The fact that Gleason is such a subtly gifted comic actress has as much to do with this as with how her character as written.
The play’s point is that simplifications don’t work. Not only is life messy, but embracing the mess - both the good and the bad, painful parts - is worth the work. Well succeeds not because of its thought-provoking message but because it ladles it out with such generous helpings of humor. The talented cast, most of whom played the same roles on Broadway, mix wry delivery, priceless facial expressions and well-timed awkward pauses as Lisa’s perfectly planned play goes awry, all while nimbly navigating the multiple characters and quick costume changes.
Even though Kron is a nicely tortured daughter, slowly losing her hard-won independence now that she’d back in her mother’s orbit, Gleason completely steals the show as Ann. With her Great Lakes accent, embarrassingly tattered housedress and knack for asking the audience if they’d like a beverage at the most inopportune moments, Gleason keeps the character of Ann on a tightrope between caricature and sympathy. Yes, Gleason can kill with a funny line, but she’s also believable in Ann’s moments of down-to-earth, blunt wisdom, never letting the moments into homespun hokiness.
Well is a smart, challenging show, commenting on the theatrical form while weaving in social commentary. Is it a little contrived and self-aware? Sure, but luckily, it’s also got the good fortune to be enormously funny and entertaining if you let yourself get caught up in its wacky spirit.
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, at the Boston University Theatre through April 8, March 21 performance includes Out and About Club pre-show reception for the GLBT community at 6pm, go to www.huntingtontheatre.org for tickets and more information