Metatheater and Chaos: A Play Review of ‘Well’ by Lisa Kron

I miss watching live theater this year. I do. I try to take in as much of the scene as I can each summer, and like many things this year, we’ll be going without for a while longer. That’s not to say that the theaters up here aren’t still doing great work – they are, and I highly recommend following them all on social media – but I found myself turning to a bookshelf in my office lined with all of the play scripts I had collected during my college years for a little theater kick this summer.

This week I selected Well by Lisa Kron: a piece I read my freshman year of college and the play that introduced me to the concept of extreme metatheatricality. 

In Well, Lisa Kron plays herself – as she’s accustomed to doing, having written several one-woman shows during her career – but this time, an ensemble of actors (playing themselves) accompanies her by taking on multiple parts to fill in the narrative. Her mother, Anne Kron – played in most notable productions by Jayne Houdyshell – also joins her on stage. 

Well is an examination of sickness and health, but also of racial diversity and how a neighborhood can grow through integration. Kron sets out to explore her journey from sickness to health, alongside the story of how her mother integrated their collapsing neighborhood and, in turn, healed it. Along the way, Anne serves as an agent of chaos within the play, constantly interrupting it while endearing herself to the audience and the ensemble, much to Lisa’s dismay as she watches her play fall apart around her. 

As the chaos continues, actors break character, scenes conclude abruptly and Lisa Kron finds herself at her wits’ end before realizing that these themes of sickness and health, and racial diversity and integration, are just tools she’s written down to try to understand her relationship with her mother, even though she’s terrified of actually exploring that. 

Beyond the text, Kron writes in her preface that Well came out of her conflicting experiences with theater structures. Most people are familiar with traditional theater structures in which actors perform their roles as written, with limited audience engagement. 

Contrast those experiences with nontraditional theatricality, in which scripts are developed over the course of rehearsals, actors break character to engage with each other – and the audience – in new ways every night, and traditional notions of what a play is are turned on their heads to create something completely new. 

It’s been my opinion for years that theater, as a live medium, should take into consideration the experience as a whole during the performance. When a cell phone goes off in the audience during a moment of dramatic silence, to continue on stage as if nothing had happened is disingenuous to the very nature of a live performance. Well takes this a step further by not only acknowledging the audience every step of the way, but by having the characters – named after the actors who are playing them – acknowledge each other.

Well doesn’t tie its narratives together into a neat bow by the end; in fact, it does just the opposite on purpose. Writers often make order of chaos, but sometimes all we’re able to do is dive a little deeper into that chaos to see how it looks on the other side.