Well looks deep into the relationship between mothers and daughters

In Well, playwright Lisa Kron has created a character, Lisa Kron, who's writing a play —an exploration, insists the on-stage doppelgänger — dealing with Lisa Kron's relationship with her mother. It has to do with illness and healing, she informs the audience (no pesky fourth wall here), and the fact that her mother, a woman strong enough to fight racism and heal an entire community, surrendered herself to a lifelong, nebulous and unnameable illness that she blamed on allergies.

Kron has thought things through and has come to reasonably neat conclusions, though this required compression and simplification; she's hired four actors to portray characters in the story; and she intends to use the stagecraft she knows well to make her point. The trouble is, she's also allowed her mother, Ann, on stage. Lisa's half of the stage is clean, elegant and evocative. But on the other half is Ann, reclining on a La-Z-Boy in her homey, cluttered room, addressing the audience herself (the first thing she does, after asking if we're comfortable, is offer food and drink) and correcting her daughter whenever she thinks it necessary.

Using her compliant actors, Lisa stages scenes at the allergy clinic where she herself went at the age of nineteen, when illness interrupted her college career. She's pretty clear in her own mind that whatever that illness was, she's managed to transcend it through right living and good attitude; Ann begs to differ. She also re-creates the neighborhood meetings Ann put together when Lisa was a child. Kron may intend her play as an exploration, but not quite as much of one as this turns out to be. Ann is not only irrepressible; she's also convincing, and pretty soon the actors are questioning the script and drifting across from Lisa's side of the stage to commune with her warmly comforting mother. Also, another character — a little black girl who bedeviled Lisa's school days and whom she never wrote into the play — keeps popping on stage to threaten and taunt. Everything Lisa has painstakingly put into place evaporates. At one point, for far longer than most playwrights would permit, we find ourselves staring at a stage on which Ann sleeps and absolutely nothing else is happening. And when the script finally moves toward a touching and recognizable resolution...there's another astonishing shift.

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Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 19, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.

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Many people these days suffer from inexplicable health problems. We speak of chronic fatigue syndrome and chemical sensitivities, and we worry about our tainted diet. There's no question many of these illnesses are quite real, and telling patients they could cure themselves with meditation or a change in diet — as many healthy people do — only adds to their suffering. It's also clear that the American middle class is one of the most self- and fad-obsessed populations on earth, and that phantom illnesses here are legion. Who knows where Ann Kron falls? Certainly not her daughter.

Lisa Kron played herself in New York, and I imagine that would add fascinating shadings. Still, it's hard to imagine the roles of Ann and Lisa better performed than they are in this Denver Center Theatre Company production, with Kate Levy as slightly brittle New York sophisticate Lisa being slowly stripped of her defenses, and Kathleen M. Brady bringing her unique combination of strength and kindliness to the role of Ann. The four actors are well played by Rachel Fowler, Shauna Miles, Robert Jason Jackson and Erik Sandvold.

You could say that Ann emerges the winner in the contest to define reality in Well, but that would be meaningless. The real Ann Kron is still alive — and she seems to be one hell of a woman — but this Ann is a creation of Lisa's, an artistic double summoned as co-author. Much of the play's power comes from its evocation of the connections between mothers and daughters, the profound things they understand about each other and the mysteries that, despite closeness, can never be penetrated. Well is about the need for understanding, and about healing in a personal, social and universal sense. It is also a very smart piece about how a work of art gets put together: the uses and misuses of memory, the way an artist sometimes needs to let go and allow the work to take on whatever shape it requires. There are deep currents to Well, but they're explored with such charm, wit and humor that we find ourselves laughing delightedly at every twist and shift.

 
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