Familial Bruising

In recovery from being a mother’s daughter.

“A woman is her mother,” said Anne Sexton. “That’s the main thing.” Granted, not everyone had boundary issues like Sexton. Nuttier than a squirrel turd, she was unhealthily enmeshed with her daughter Linda, who wrote a memoir to deal with Anne’s legacy of bipolar abuse.

Playwright Lisa Kron’s mother, Ann Kron, is apparently the anti-Sexton—a kindly, saintly racial-integration campaigner in Lansing, Mich. But like the younger Sexton, the younger Kron felt a panicked need to escape an imprisoning maternal legacy, and she poured it into her autobiographical play Well. An international hit, it established serial stage memoirist Kron (who played herself) as the Spalding Gray of our day (at least in The New York Times’ opinion).

Ann Kron had an illness, too, a crippling exhaustion nobody could diagnose. One especially useless doctor called it “Tired Housewife Syndrome.” Ann herself blames allergies—the same affliction that forced her playwright daughter to drop out of college and spend months in a Chicago allergy clinic.

Onstage, Lisa and Ann become characters in a self-mockingly self-referential sendup of experimental theater.

“This play is not about my mother and me,” insists Lisa (Roberta Furst). “It’s not about how she’s been sick for years [and] I was sick as well but somehow I got better. It’s not about how she was able to heal a neighborhood but she’s not able to heal herself.” Of course, that is what it’s about. But it’s also about Lisa’s attempt to seize control of the story of her life, often contradicted by her mom (Walayn Sharples), reclining in a La-Z-Boy at stage left.

“Honey, turn out, you have your back to the audience,” Ann says helpfully. “Mom!” hisses Lisa. “It’s not about you! It’s a theatrical construct…Y’know what, Mom? Why don’t you have your own show?” In fact, this show is Mom’s as much as it is Lisa’s.

Everybody onstage keeps interrupting and deconstructing Lisa’s theater piece. Besides Mom, there’s the ensemble of actors who portray Lisa’s childhood playmates and neighbors and her fellow allergy patients at the clinic. At one crucial point, they decide it’s mama Ann who has the story right, and stage a mutiny against Lisa.

The childhood-flashback scenes are like Lynda Barry’s The Good Times Are Killing Me as rewritten by Pirandello. One character, a 9-year-old black girl (La’Chris Jordan) who used to torment Lisa in school for her unhip ways (she can’t dance, and she’d rather listen to the Archies than Rufus and Chaka Khan), invades the stage to taunt the grown-up narrator Lisa. When Lisa says she’s not supposed to be in the play, the girl defies her, then stalks off muttering, “Stupid girl acts like she’s scared of me, so I give her something to be scared of.” The young black woman sitting in front of me softly murmured, “Mm-hm.”

Poor Lisa! All she wants is to craft her past into a satisfying triumphalist story. Her fellow allergy patients were hypochondriacs, and maybe her mom is too—how else did she summon the energy to fight racism to a standstill in Lansing? The reason she stopped being sick was that she left Lansing for Lower Manhattan and broke the spell of her mom’s family tradition of sickliness. “I escaped to the land of healthy people! People who have chosen strength and health and sex and attractive clothes and organic foods and Target over Kmart even if it costs a little more!”

But Lisa’s insubordinate creations make the contrary points. How and why people and societies sicken and get well is a shimmering mystery. All narrators are unreliable, but each does have a point.

Furst’s mounting exasperation is funny, yet she’s capable of convincing tears when the play gets painful. Sharples could be in the Smithsonian as the Standard Unit of Mom: sweet, slightly foggy, wanting to fetch the audience sodas, not wanting to upset her child but adamant about having her say. Jordan, Marcel Davis, and Gordon Hendrickson are winningly cartoonish as the enactors of Lisa’s memories, with Ellen Dessler the standout as Lisa’s irritably reaction-prone fellow allergy victim (or self-victimizer). Jordan’s third-grade bully character scores, too.

Lisa Kron is no Spalding Gray. She lacks the avalanche-like mind, the high-wire free associations and irrational paranoia. Instead she’s sane, other-directed, a monologuist who’s also a dialoguist. So what if she’s not Gray? Well is the smartest, most soulful show I’ve seen in Seattle this year.