NEW YORK — Mother-daughter issues have been fodder for a veritable library of self-help books. But few people have tried the approach of playwright-actress Lisa Kron and put those conflicts on stage — along with mom herself.
In her critically acclaimed play “Well,” opening this week at the Longacre Theatre after a sold-out run at the Public Theatre two years ago, Kron takes audiences on a dramatic and hilarious journey exploring ideas on race, mental and physical illness and, of course, Mommie Dearest. Posing as a fictitious version of herself, Kron, along with a supporting chorus of actors, narrates the autobiographical tale of trying to put on a play about her memories of growing up in a black neighborhood in Michigan, time spent in the allergy unit of a hospital and her mother Ann’s chronic illness. Throughout, actress Jayne Houdyshell sits on stage in an armchair as Kron’s mother, interrupting her storytelling attempts. Actors fall out of character, interacting with Houdyshell; scenes fall apart, and Kron loses her cool as general chaos ensues, much to the audience’s amusement.
Like any fruitful — or frustrating — relationship, “Well” has been a work in progress since Kron began writing the piece six years ago. And so has, naturally, the actress’ career. Raised in Lansing, Mich., Kron studied theater at Kalamazoo College and toured with the National Repertory Theatre for a season before moving to New York in 1984.
“I was pretty hapless for a long time,” she says. “I sort of found my way by accident to the East Village into the performance art scene.” There, she clocked many hours telling and improvising anecdotal stories on stage, working at the theater collective at the Wild Café and going on with a group to found the company the Five Lesbian Brothers. Kron began writing plays, and her solo theater career was born (though she still performs with the Five Lesbian Brothers).
After writing and performing in “2.5 Minute Ride,” about her Holocaust survivor father and her brother’s marriage, Kron started work on “Well,” not without some anxiety on her mother’s part.
“In the creation of the play, she was very nervous, in the way that the character of her is on stage, and that what I was saying was I got better and so she should be able to get better,” explains Kron, referring to her stint in the allergy ward. Now, many years and multiple viewings later, mom is a big fan, though she offers her occasional criticism. For example, an earlier version of the play had her collecting thimbles.
This story first appeared in the March 28, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“My mother was, like, ‘I have never had a thimble collection — I never would collect thimbles. I think that’s a stupid collection,'” laughs Kron, who obligingly changed it to candle snuffers, the one thing her mother admits to collecting. “The director and dramaturge were kind of horrified, because it seemed wordy, but I said, ‘Listen — I’m gonna give that one to my mom.'”
Navigating the factual details was one of the many challenges Kron incurred in structuring the story. But one shouldn’t mistake the play disintegrating on stage for Kron’s actual, much lengthier struggles in crafting it.
“I think the problem with writing a play about how hard it is to do a play is that I certainly have seen plays like that and thought, ‘Well, why don’t you figure out how to make your play work, and then I’ll sit here and pay some money and spend my time watching it!'” she says. “So I don’t think that the play is about the real difficulty we had writing it. It uses an imagined difficulty to make a form that is reflective of the content.”
If the end result has landed her on a Broadway stage for an open-ended run, no one is more surprised than Kron herself. “It’s certainly not what anybody pictured, ever!’ she laughs. “You know, it’s like, how will I get to Broadway? I’m going to become a lesbian performance artist and write these really weird plays. That’ll work!”