Don't Put Your Mother on the Stage: Playwright's "Mom" Disrupts New Play

Special Features   Don't Put Your Mother on the Stage: Playwright's "Mom" Disrupts New Play
Actress-playwright Lisa Kron, known for her solo shows, invites other characters and actors into her new play, Well. What results is nothing short of an on-stage crisis.
Lisa Kron in Well
Lisa Kron in Well Photo by Michal Daniel

The world premiere staging of the play, which began performances March 16 and opened March 28 at The Public Theater, represents the first time Kron has added other characters into her work, though she — or a version of herself — is still center-stage, telling a personal story.

"I did start to do this as a solo, I think," Kron told Playbill On-Line between rehearsals. "I don't think I knew quite what it was going to be. I started writing short, anecdotal pieces, recollections, which is generally how I start my work. And then it's a long process to figure out what's going to turn that into theatre. It takes a long time to figure out what is going to turn anecdotal stories into dramatic action."

Making the personal dramatic has been a formal quest of Kron's for a long time, according to the Michigan native who penned 2.5 Minute Ride (largely about her father), previously seen Off-Broadway at The Public.

"In order to have dramatic action, somebody has to enter the playing space with one set of goals or assumptions and leave altered," she explained. "The main fiction of the show, I suppose, is that I use myself — I compartmentalize myself to create a character that will go through a journey."

At the top of the show, Lisa Kron, the character, notecards in hand, tells the audience that Well is a "theatrical exploration" in which we will see that she had been ill when she was younger, but that she got well. In contrast, her mother, Ann, who sits stage-left in an easy chair among living-room clutter from their Lansing, Michigan home, has never been physically well.

Ironically, in the late 1960s and early '70s Ann Kron fought to make their racially mixed Lansing neighborhood healthy by promoting interaction between neighbors in a time when segregation was almost expected. The idea of wellness emerges in stories of Lisa's stay in an allergy ward and tales of the neighborhood.

Ann Kron, in house dress and slippers, doesn't know the rules of theatre and her interruptions end up spoiling the momentum of her daughter's play, underlining the work's universal ideas about parents and children.

"It's still a solo show in that the whole show has aspects of a conversation or an emotional trajectory that I have had myself," Kron explained. "That's the true meta-theatrics of it, I think. Even though my character says it in a way that's deluded and funny, it is all a theatrical construct. It is a theatrical exploration of ideas and emotions around this thing."

Without boundaries, her mother (played by Jayne Houdyshell) engages the play's other actors (Welker White, Joel Van Liew, Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Kenajuan Bentley) in conversation, forcing them to break character — and abandon Lisa.

Similarly, the show is cracked open by the entrance a sassy bully from Lisa Kron's schooldays, a girl named Lori Jones (played by Ekulona). Literally ripping through a scrim upstage, she attacks Lisa, wrestling her to the floor.

As Lori drags her across the stage, helpless Kron cries out, "I can't believe I'm getting beaten up in my own play, this is absurd!"

"It has really been fun to create these two 'extra-theatrical' characters, Lori Jones and my mother, because they don't know the rules," Kron said. "I had this traditional theatre training and then came downtown to the Wow Cafe, a lesbian theatre collective in the East Village, in the mid '80s, when the performance art scene was happening. Wow is a collective where any woman who puts in time can do her own show. I remember thinking, 'She can't do a show, she doesn't know anything about theatre! She doesn't know the rules! She doesn't know how to make it work.' And I would go to these shows and I would think, that was so amazing. Since that time, I have always been interested in what can be released when somebody doesn't know the rules. That sort of ties into my fundamental, profound love of the theatre: An acknowledgement of the volatility of the form, and the energy that can be released from that volatility."

At turns, Well, directed by Leigh Silverman, is about health care and wellness, mothers and daughters, past and present, community and personality.

At post-show discussions at The Public and in its regional development, audiences have had all kinds of responses to the work. Krom observes, "They're allowed to enter in a lot of different ways, and allowed to process in a lot of different ways — it doesn't take you in in one direction and move everybody on the same path."

Kron said her work as an actress in this very personal show is technical and not emotional.

"In order to make your work an experience for the audience, in a play like this, you need to get your processing done by the time it goes in front of an audience," she said. "It's not about me having a catharsis. It's about the audience having an experience."

Her mother has read the play. "It has been very challenging for her," Kron admitted. "I think she's also starting to be excited by it. She's talked with Jayne several times. They've developed a really lovely relationship."

Although Kron's onstage relationship with her mother has its prickly and confrontational moments, leading to the complete dismantling of the storytelling, "This capacity to reimagine my life, to make changes, to be different from my mother gave me permission and encouragement to do all those things."

Jayne Houdyshell and Lisa Kron in <i>Well</i>
Jayne Houdyshell and Lisa Kron in Well Photo by Michal Daniel
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