Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Well" - Simply Titled, Complexly Told

Daina Michelle Griffith as Lisa and Virginia Wall Gruenert as Ann in Off the Wall Theater's production of "Well"

Allergies. They come with an entire list of symptoms and maladies - everything from restless leg syndrome and stuffy nose to impaired sleep and itchy eyes.

Playwright Lisa Kron uses this often disabling affliction as a spring board to set in motion a seriocomedic autobiographic account of her and her family’s entrenched maladies and her own ultimate path to "wellness."

Getting its Pittsburgh area premiere at Carnegie’s Off the Wall Theater, "Well" takes on both the microcosm of the playwright’s biographical adventures on the road to self-discovery as well as the larger issues of community wellness. The key to the play is the protagonist’s relationship with her mother, a strong minded but emotionally soft- woman who’s spent most of her life immobilized by infirmity, but still energetic enough to be able to galvanize her community to stop its further post-industrial deterioration.

The play opens with Ann, the mother, dozing on her La-Z Boy while daughter, Lisa, enters to inform the audience they’re seeing a "multi-character theatrical exploration about the issues of health and illness."

Don’t let her dry description fool you into believing that you’re in for a dull evening of seat-squirming ennui. If anything, you’ll probably find yourself on the edge of your chair trying to keep up with the shenanigans of the six character cast and the author’s playful penchant for violating all the rules of chronology, place and dimension.

The membrane of Kron’s dramatic reality is extremely permeable and allows the audience to move fluidly from Ann’s cozy living room to the allergy clinic where Lisa goes for treatment to her childhood days and beyond. The characters, some of which play multiple roles, even manage to step out of their roles in Pirandello-esque fashion to take on Lisa the playwright as themselves, not actors.

With so much going on, Kron still manages to consider an unlikely mix of issues such as inter-racial integration, the slippery slope of memory, parent-child relationships, community and social well-being and the daunting task of really being able to know someone fully.

Daina Michelle Griffith as the intently self-absorbed Lisa anchors the play with remarkable energy and insightfulness. Equally as strong, though much more emotionally understated, Virginia Wall Gruenert cushions her daughter’s highly charged personality with maternal gentleness, wise understanding and an occasional pithy rebuke.

The four ensemble players Tony Bingham, Linda Haston, Alan Bomar Jones and Susie McGregor-Laine act as though the success of the play depended on them and with more than the expected amount of care, devotion and nuanced characterization

As director, Melissa Hill Grande must have exceptional organizational and leadership skills, not only to conceptualize the meanderings of the playwright’s complexly structured machinations but also to inspire the actors to give plausible treatment to the improbable gymnastics of Kron’s creative intellect.

In short, unlike an allergy, Off the Wall’s production of "Well" is nothing to sneeze at.
Through December 28. Phone 724-873-3576 or www.insideoffthewall.com.