Theatre Review: “Well” at the Phoenix Theatre

Counterclockwise from top:  Deborah Sargent, Kai Mwaafrika, Danny Russel, Gayle Steigerwald, Michael H. Smith, and Gail Bray in “Well.”On Thursday night I drove downtown to the Phoenix Theatre for the opening performance of “Well,” by Lisa Kron.  When this autobiographical play opened on Broadway, the playwright played herself.  In this production, directed by Martha Jacobs and produced by Bryan Fonseca, Deborah Sargent plays the part of Lisa Kron, and Gayle Steigerwald plays her chronically ill mother.

The playwright assures us, however, that this piece is not about their relationship.  Or at least, not directly.  Of course, what writer doesn’t use her family in her writing in one way or the other?  But Lisa has index cards to keep her on track.  This piece, this theatrical construct, is to be a well-disciplined exploration of other, more important topics, such as racism.  And health. 

Her mother is in the play because she was a leader in the racial integration of their neighborhood when Lisa was growing up back in the early 1960s.  And also because her mother has been sick for the past few decades.  She is the specific to illustrate the universal, that’s all.  Or so the playwright tells us, from a small, spot lit platform. (Lighting design by Bryan Fonseca.)

Her mother, meanwhile, is off to the side in her lazy boy recliner, surrounded by her carefully organized collections of angel figurines and other items.  (Set design by Justin Kidwell.)  She sleeps a lot, but when she is awake, she offers the audience drinks and candy. Everyone falls in love with her, especially the other characters and the actors who play them.

The metastory is that the creative process is messy.  You can’t always pick and choose what you want to explore when you are making a piece of art.  It is even more unpredictable when you are moving from one form of art to another, from one-woman shows to plays with several characters, for example.  Emotions well up.  So do memories, some of them accurate, others less so.  Sometimes characters show up that you would prefer to forget.  It is futile to try and control all this with index cards.

It is fascinating to watch Lisa try.

Lisa asks the seductive question, “Why do some people get well and others stay sick?”  She got well, so why can’t her mother?  

She also, in so many words, asks the question, “Why can’t we all just get along?”  Black and white, healthy and sick, Jewish and Christian, same as us and different from us…Why do we believe that dichotomies are so important? (Because sometimes they are.)

She asks these questions with both irritation and compassion.  (Speaking of dichotomies.) 

Some of the scenes take place at the allergy center where Lisa went when she was in college.  Gail Bray plays Joy, whose allergic reaction to her new roommate, Lisa, is hilariously specific.  Danny Russel plays a bizarre Head Nurse – sort of a cross between Mr. Rogers and Richard Simmons.

Other scenes take place in the integrated neighborhood.  Kai Mwaafrika is terrifying as Lisa’s childhood tormentor.  Michael H. Smith is completely believable as both Lisa’s fun-loving friend, Little Oscar, and his alcoholic father, Big Oscar.

Each member of the ensemble (Russel, Mwaafrika, Bray, and Smith) skillfully plays more than one role.  They also play themselves when their sympathy for Lisa’s mother overturns their commitment to the characters.

There is a lot going on in this intense show, but somehow it all ties together.  It is not a healing experience in and of itself, the way some shows are, but it is definitely a catalyst for healing.  There is a lot of yelling and crying, and this made me worry about the actor-characters rather than lose myself in their story, but there is also a lot of nourishing, hypoallergenic food for thought.  It has been feeding me for days now.

I love the layers in this piece.  I love that it made me think of the word “integration” and the phrase “getting clear” in new ways.

By the way, one of the reasons that I was particularly interested in seeing this show was because of the director, Martha Jacobs.  One afternoon a couple of months ago I got to have a long conversation about the craft of acting with an actor named Bill Simmons.  He had spent two years learning the Meisner method of acting from Jacobs.  He raved to me about the experience.  I was curious to see what a show directed by her would be like.

It was very real, very in-the-moment.  I don’t know if Deborah Sargent and Gayle Steigerwald always use this method, but I do know that they were both very convincing in this show.  At more than one point I even thought, “Wait, did this really happen to them? Are they mother and daughter in real life, too?” even though I knew they were not.  Their portrayals are very powerful.

Before I end this review, I want to mention the costumes and a couple more things about the set:

Karen Witting designed the costumes.  I especially admired Lisa’s brave show business outfit: a black and white pantsuit with a dramatic red scarf at her throat chakra. 

On Thursday night, coincidentally, during a conversation where Lisa and her mother were beginning to speak more honestly with each other, one of Lisa’s diamond-y earrings fell off onto the floor.  Deb Sargent calmly picked it up, felt her ears, took off her other earring and placed both of them behind a pole.  Surely the earring falling was an accident, but it fit very nicely with what was happening in the dialogue.  I.e. – glitz and bravado falling away to make room for candor and love.  I wonder if it is possible to rig an earring to fall off on cue?

I also admired the large black-and-white squares on the floor, designed by Justin Kidwell.  They, along with Lisa’s costume, contrast nicely with the not-so-black-and-white issues of the play.

And finally…even though the refreshment stand has to close up before the start of the play because the fridge and cabinets back there become part of the set (with more of Bryan Fonseca’s clever lighting), not to worry:  Jessica the bartender returns at intermission with more of her yummy, homemade “magic bars” and exotic (to me) beers.

“Well” continues in the intimate Frank and Katrina Basile space downstairs at the Phoenix Theatre Thursdays-Sundays through April 6, 2008.  Please call 317-635-PLAY to make a reservation.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

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