Friday, March 16, 2007
All about my mother
Lisa Kron tries to explain Mary Pat Gleason in Well; photo(s) by T. Charles Erickson.
What to make of Lisa Kron’s Well (at the Huntington Theatre through April 8)? On the surface, it’s a savvy piece of performance art, devised by Ms. Kron “to explore issues of illness and wellness” in the context of her relationship to her allergy-ridden, chronically-fatigued mother, Ann (Mary Pat Gleason). Even before the play proper begins, Ann is seen sprawling on her La-Z-Boy, half-asleep – and like some friendly cross between Lily Tomlin and Hillary Clinton, Kron soon appears as our postmodern tour guide to her family’s history, and mystery: once she, too, was in a state of near-collapse due to “allergies” – so why did she get well, while Mom didn’t? Moreover, how could Ann be such a wreck, yet still have single-handedly transformed her neighborhood from a sad case of “white flight” to a vibrant, multi-ethnic community?
This is certainly more than enough topic for any drama - one level down, however, Well proves to be a stealth attack on its own plan of attack – it’s not bourgeois attitude that implodes as the play proceeds, but rather the structure (and even the set!) of the arty piece itself. This, of course, places Well in the commercial precincts of Blue Man Group, the cutely-alienated “performance art” franchise that, as a friend of mine put it, “subverts subversion for the suburbs.” Kron plays much the same game – Well begins as critique, but the author gradually throws up her hands before her mother’s psychological mysteries, all the “downtown shit” goes out the window, and the show closes with what effectively is a conceptual hug – the avant-garde transformed into sitcom, seemingly against its will.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and Kron’s absolutely right on one key point: families do operate as “alternate universes,” in which all the “downtown shit” of the self-aware, college-educated apostate is hopelessly irrelevant; the bond of love between parent and child (and Mom clearly loves Lisa, and Lisa Mom) short-circuits liberation, therapy, “self,” “critique,” “performance,” and just about everything else. Well, at its hilarious best, operates as an object demonstration of this central truth: it literally falls apart before Mom’s lovable passive-aggressive tactics; by the curtain, even Kron’s actors have abandoned her (and her script), and are busily chatting up Ann.
Still, despite its charms, all’s not really well with Well, simply because the “exploration” that Kron sets up is really just a straw man to be knocked down; she never “explores” anything about her mother, herself, the year they spent integrating their neighborhood, or her subsequent stay at an allergy clinic. True, Kron offers snippets of scenes about these topics, but quickly dodges any actual material to get back to her “this avant-garde thing will bite you in the ass” schtick; within minutes, somebody is questioning the dialogue or taking drink orders – or the set is falling down.
In some ways, this is just as well, in that the rather bald parallel between racism and being “allergic” would only turn embarrassing if Kron pressed it too hard. But eventually, the piece’s unexplored, unspoken subtext looms larger than the proverbial elephant in the room. At one point, when pondering how she recovered from her “allergies,” Kron drops one offhand bombshell – she got well because she began to have sex with women. Yes, I suppose that would do it, but that’s all we hear of Kron’s sexuality – a topic which is often, shall we say, a fraught one for gay women and their mothers.
I don’t mean to imply that homophobia figured in the psyche of Kron’s mother, and I’m more than happy, being gay myself, to treat the author’s sex life as no big deal. But the absence of any discussion of her coming out in a play putatively about her bond with her mother only makes me wonder what else might be banging around in this relationship. And after all, how could the “meta-theatrical thing” with all its attendant “downtown shit” stand a chance when its central concerns – sex, personal freedom, etc. – are never even mentioned, much less addressed?
Hence Well can’t generate much momentum, as no real conflict is allowed to arise (the play is crafted to give you “something to think about,” not argue about). Still, I can’t deny the piece is fun (as at left). Kron’s real talent is for stand-up, and her “solo show with other people in it” is studded with clever lines, which she delivers with timing Kate Clinton might envy. Alas, Kron never conjures much in the way of real connection with her mother, but somehow the text does that for her, and Mary Pat Gleason is all but unforgettable in the role – most natural when the script is at its most artificial, and effortlessly projecting both this mother’s love and her unexpected reserves of strength, as well as a certain subconscious craftiness. That these strengths should be entwined with psychosomatic weakness should mystify only those with a passing acquaintance with humanity; for the rest of us, the perpetually ailing hausfrau who suddenly rises to every crisis is not a mystery but instead a stereotype.
Alas, stereotypes figure elsewhere in Well as well; perhaps to underline the artificiality of Kron’s “script,” director Leigh Silverman has directed the rest of the cast to overact cartoonishly; still, Donnetta Lavinia Grays does score as a schoolyard bully who rises from the author’s subconscious, and Barbara Pitts has some good moments as “Joy,” her joyless roommate in the allergy clinic. The men are less convincing, but then Kron hasn’t given them any of the good lines – and the set and lighting (borrowed from the New York production) were adequate, but not really up to the Huntington’s usual high standard.
Still, Well does some things well – even if what it chiefly does is showcase Mary Pat Gleason. Even she abandons the play in its final moments (surprise!), but her performance lingers in its ramifications – that in end, we cannot “integrate” those we love into our lives completely, because we cannot know them completely; we must at some level always remain separate, and uncomprehending – to paraphrase the title of a lesbian classic, each of us lives in a well of loneliness, and onliness.