PlayMakers Repertory Company
Through March 1
Here's the problem with autobiographical performance: The moment you start dragging other people into it, things get messy.
There you are, having excavated a personal story and, in doing, actually redeemed some small part of the deep, dark past. You've put it on public display—perhaps not so quietly proud of its artfully turned phrases and tastefully heightened aesthetics. Your achievement is not small: You have made sense of what was likely a bewildering or personally embarrassing series of events from a more vulnerable time. In something that so hurt and isolated you at the time it was taking place, you've miraculously found something that reunites you now in common cause with a community.
Then someone who was actually in some part of that story pulls you aside, with a concerned look, after it opens and murmurs—or, far worse, quietly says from their seat during a performance—"That's not the way it went."
People regularly remember the same events differently, or interpret them from different points of view: Reason enough that autobiographical stage artists usually take pains ensuring their supporting cast, as it were, are conveniently absent when showtime rolls around. If few autobiographers perform in their home towns, it's because the same distance that gives perspective on the past also minimizes the chance of inopportune—and unscripted—present interactions with it.
If playwright Will Eno has catalogued the sins of the one-person show (albeit in excruciating detail) in Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), monologist Lisa Kron ably zeroes in on the particular foibles of staged autobiography in Well, her first play for multiple actors, at PlayMakers Rep.
In the author's role, Julie Fishell displays all of the bright and brittle confidence—and most of the sublimated anger—of a grad student presenting a final project in performative self-ethnography. The lowered expectations in the academic language of her character's ersatz pre-show stage speech promises not a play but a "theatrical exploration" of "universal issues" that just happen to evince in a subject close to home: Kron's mother, Anna. As is frequently the case in such academic endeavors, Kron's own characer establishes a stranglehold from the first on the narrative she's presenting, its meaning and the people involved. But, much rarer in these proceedings, her subject then breaks that grip in mid-discourse. Having apparently been uprooted, living room and all, and placed on stage for this demonstration, Anna counters that the conflicts she encountered as an activist working for racial integration can't be boiled down to a "two-minute montage." Nor is Mom the only one sabotaging the presenter's finished product: A childhood bully storms the stage repeatedly, apparently looking to literally reopen old wounds.
By now, theatrical disaster is one of Kron's signatures: a story that gets totally derailed in mid-tale, usually by the late arrival of an inconvenient insight. In this telling, if we never truly buy the actors who abandon ship (including Joy Jones, who was terrifying as Kron's grade-school nemesis, and the amusing Jeff Meanza as a far-too-cheerful allergist), Brenda Wehle's authoritative work as Anna still insists on the truth—and nothing but the truth—from the playwright and from us.
Kron's character is right when she says at one point that her work, Well, is not a "well-made play." But the same critique applies, in part to Well. Its broken pavement and its extended preoccupations with academe and the avant-garde come off cold here, and ultimately read too much like inside baseball. But when her characters finally get down to the home truths, things warm up, before an ending that, at least on Saturday night, still seemed to fizzle a bit.