Sometimes good plays happen to good artists who simply don’t understand what they’re doing or why, which makes everyone—the playwright, the actors, the designers—look bad. It’s a shame, because the production of Well at Park Square Theatre has an all-star lineup that, by anyone’s estimation, should have resulted in great theater. What has formed instead is a sorely misdirected interpretation of a play that requires far more than anyone involved was able to give it.
Playwright Lisa Kron is a performance artist whose oeuvre is challenging the area between theater, performance art and—in the case of Well, memoir—as valid theatrical performance. Kron has created a kind of metatheatricality that pokes fun at itself. It’s a lovely convention, but Park Square’s production doesn’t do it much justice.
Well is essentially a play about the relationship Kron has with her chronically ill mother, Ann. That through-line is important, as Well does not have a conventional narrative. Thanks to Michael Dixon’s confused direction, it barely has a narrative at all. (It should be noted that Dixon is an imminently talented director. His repeated missteps here are, to be metatheatrical about it, out of character.)
Lisa, played by Christina Baldwin, talks directly to the audience with personable, funny monologues. Baldwin begins strongly, but falters when the play requires honesty and emotional depth. Baldwin is a talented actor with a wide range, but she doesn’t show it here, and the demonstrative catharsis feels like a cop-out. In the Broadway production, Kron played herself, which undoubtedly worked much better.
Kron’s mother is played with benign, little-old-lady syndrome by Barbara June Patterson, who gets plenty of laughs but fails to capture the guts of the woman slumped in the La-Z-Boy. Ann was, according to Lisa’s recollections, a vanguard in their Lansing, Michigan neighborhood. A progressive, Ann moved the family into a neighborhood where they were the only whites and the only Jews, back when racial integration was crazy talk. That sly chutzpah, in addition to her chronic fatigue, is not apparent in Patterson’s interpretation. The most glaring problem is Baldwin and Patterson’s age difference. The character of Lisa (just like the real-life Lisa) should be in her mid-forties. Baldwin is too young. Instead of a charged mother-daughter relationship, we get something like a sputtering grandmother-granddaughter conversation, one that Lisa can back out of at any time.
There are other characters in Well, played with varying degrees of success by Faye M. Price, Heidi Bakke, Edwin Strout, and Emil Herrera. Their talents, like Baldwin and Patterson’s, are wasted. Every time the foursome enters to play people in Lisa’s past, the bottom drops out. When the actors rebel and walk offstage because the play makes no sense, one is tempted to go with them.
Well runs through February 10 at Park Square Theatre.