Friday, Jun 23, 2017

Well (2010)

Photo by Jenny Graham

Photo by Jenny Graham

The presence of Well on this year’s roster of Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions signals in no uncertain terms that the Festival is going to remain committed to presenting remarkable new work alongside the usual buffet of surefire crowd pleasers. Presented in the New Theatre under the direction of James Edmondson,Well also shows that organizers are getting better at finding forward-looking plays that can still appeal to Festival audiences for four months: it is vigorous and thought-provoking, emotional without being treacly, and it provides a gorgeous showcase for several Company stalwarts.

An explanation of the plot is a lot less valuable than an explanation of the conceit of the play, so here goes. A woman is producing a modern “theatrical experience” that doesn’t use a traditional script. She has note cards with ideas, and apparently some scenes have been scripted. The ostensible focus of her production is the nature of illness; who gets sick and why, who gets well and why do they succeed where others fail, and how personal health is similar to the health of a community. She has hired four actors to appear in these scenes with her, and in between each scene she discusses the scenes and her related memories. Note that this means a person on stage (let’s say Brent Hinkley) will sometimes be playing an actor hired to perform in this production, while at other times he is playing the character that his actor-character has been hired to play. Once or twice he also appears as Brent Hinkley himself. Adding another monkey wrench to this affair is the presence of the lead character’s mother (as well as her mother’s living room, including the recliner in which she spends nearly all of her time) who is observing the production. Over the course of the production the mother’s interference grows until she’s over-taking whole scenes; eventually proceedings are reduced to a conversation between mother and daughter. I tell you all of this so you know what you’re getting yourself into; I found the whole thing fascinating, and they only used the conceit as a premise for a laugh once – and it was a good one.

So how’d they do? In a word – great. (See? I avoided the “well” pun. You’re “well” come.) (Couldn’t avoid that one, though.) Terri McMahon plays the role of Lisa Kron, playwright and daughter, with real empathy, moving subtly but effectively between Lisa within-the-production vs. Lisa who is creating the production. Good on her own, she’s fantastic when paired with her “mother,” Dee Maaske as Ann Kron. After 18 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival it’s not really right to use a word like “revelatory”, but it’s still true I don’t remember ever seeing Ms. Maaske as warm and accessible as this… and I liked it. A lot. The four hired actors (G. Valmont Thomas, Brent Hinkley, K. T. Vogt and Gina Daniels) are solid throughout the production, but while they each have their moments fundamentally they provide a supporting framework for the two actresses at the center of the action.

I suspect that the word of mouth for Well will be mixed, though trending positive. It shares contemporary fiction’s comfort level with ambiguity, as the ending has a point to it but is hardly concrete in the answers it offers up. As wryly as it may be said within the play, Well is most successful as an exploration, not just of its subject matter but of theater itself.