at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
written by Lisa Kron
It’s 105 minutes of “Did You Get It?”-sledgehammer-over-the-audience’s-head time as Well crawls its way to an unsatisfying conclusion.
Stand-up comedian Lisa Kron wrote this
sketch play that is repeatedly not about her relationship with her mother. Not about her mother who is lounging prominently on stage even as the audience takes its seats. Not. Get it?
To be fair to Kron, I’ve talked to people who liked the play when it was at San Francisco’s ACT, it won Tony Award nominations for its lead characters when it was on Broadway, and the New York Times welcomed Well as a “sparkling autobiographical play” to rally “fans of that beleaguered literary form, the memoir”.
So, OSF gets credit for taking a risk with a modern, quirky piece. But, director James Edmondson and crew didn’t connect with the work. In this incarnation the play feels overreaching, shoddy, and incomplete. Almost creepily amateurish.
The play’s main character is the author, Lisa Kron, played by the usually excellent Terri McMahon. Unhappily, McMahon doesn’t do the job here. Lisa wanders around the stage without focus or believability. Is she being played slapstick? as a caricature? as a, well, what?? She acts like her lines are supposed to be snappy zingers or masterful phrases of insight. In reality, they just don’t work. McMahon’s whole character doesn’t work. She’s neither funny nor wise nor empathetic. The play is lost without a center to this central character.
Speaking of wandering around looking for the role’s soul, poor Brent Hinkley (Head Nurse, Howard Norris, Himself) and K.T. Vogt (Joy, Dottie, Herself)! Instead of swapping in and out of their multiple personalities as called for as the story, they moved from one scene to another like uncomfortable high school actors looking for the teacher’s approval. I have liked these performers in other productions, and Vogt has shown particular talent. But they and director Edmondson couldn’t make the multiple roles, in-and-out-of-character switches have meaning.
Dee Maaske as the mother ensconced upstage on her Barcalounger was a bright spot of pure fun. Maaske was a perfect mother, ill with chronic vague disease syndrome who nevertheless still bent the world around her. Hesitating, helpful, and powerful in her weakness, you believe her completely. Masske flubbed a couple lines at the opening performance, but she was good enough overall for me to take that usually fatal annoyance in stride.
Similarly, G. Valmont Thomas (as Nurse 2, Jim Richardson, Little Oscar, Big Oscar, Himself) demonstrated on-stage craftsmanship which relieved the tedium. Thomas is a master of creating vignettes amidst dramatic detritus, using raw talent to give the audience moments of pleasure. Like his scenes in Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, Thomas’ best moments in Well were isolated seconds disconnected from the mess around him. They were enjoyable, nevertheless. Incidentally, OSF needs to give him a role other than the big galoot where he has been marginalized for the past few years.
The other multiple-role supporting actor who manages to enliven is Gina Daniels (Kay, Mrs. Price, Lori Jones, Cynthia, Herself). With Daniels it’s also her pure, in-the-moment energy that makes whatever senseless action she’s required to perform worth watching. I liked her sassy child bully the best, but she got into her other micro roles easily and completely.
I appreciate OSF’s decision to offer new plays and non-traditional dramatic structures. There’s a star of appreciation for that boldness. But, other good things about this production are merely standalone stand-out performances. There’s no story, moral, or character changing that let me know I saw Theatre.