Saturday, March 11, 2006

Well (Cleveland Play House)

Everything is ‘WELL’ AT CPH

As the audience enters Cleveland Play House’s Drury Theatre, they are confronted by an elderly woman sitting in a worn La-Z-Boy recliner. A younger woman appears from the wings, sharply attired and armed with index cards. She steps into her circle of light and announces that the evening will be a "theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in an individual and in a community."

The individual is her mother, "a fantastically energetic person trapped in an utterly exhausted body. The firebrand who once racially integrated her neighborhood in Lansing, Michigan.”

Thus, we are introduced to one of the most bizarre scripts ever written. The structure is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The plot is in the present, the past and the future at the same time. And, yet, it’s easy to follow.

From the outset, Ann, the mother (Clevelander Denny Dillon of “Saturday Night Live” fame) controls the action. As daughter and playwright Lisa (Alicia Roper in the CPH production) narrates, Ann corrects, clarifies and up-stages. (Does that sound like any mother you know?) While Lisa tries valiantly to tell her tale, mom is so charming and sympathetic that the audience gets pulled out of Lisa’s story. At one point, Ann blithely offers the audience beverages and flings sacks of snacks at the first few rows by way of bidding them welcome. Lisa stands there stunned, wondering if “the absurdist playwright Pirandello really started this way.” As Lisa states, “That's what you get for bending rules, breaking the fourth wall and experimenting. The lesson to be learned might be that a playwright should never invite your mother on the stage with you."

Ann is not the only impediment. Other actors appear and, as Lisa talks, they critique the script and her memories. Lisa finds herself losing control of her own play and, therefore, of her life. What’s right? Who is right? Can life and theatre be integrated? Can we, as the playwright contends, “weave into a whole the parts that don’t fit?”

Sound bizarre? Sound delightful? Sound like a play that received rave reviews in its Off-Broadway presentation? Well, ‘WELL,’ is bizarre, delightful and deserving of the praise it received in its previous productions.

Denny Dillon is hilarious as the mother. She uses her aged kewpi-doll face and whiny voice to the max. She is totally believable. It is easy to understand why the audience appears to take her side in the conflict between her version of reality and Lisa’s.

Alicia Roper is right on target as the daughter. She swings from “in control” to “nearly hysterical” with ease. She is the perfect foil for Dillon.

The rest of the cast, Zandy Hartig, Jason Miller, Lelun Durond Thompson and Bailey Varness are fine in their multi-roles.

Michael Raiford’s scenic design, putting the realistic living room and stairway floating in the midst of an empty stage, works well. It isolates the action, but extends it into all of our experiences.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The CPH production, under the adept direction of Michael Bloom, is both insightful and fun. It’s the perfect blend of what high level theatre should be: thought-provoking and entertaining. This is exactly the kind of play selection and direction we had hoped Bloom would bring to the theatre when he was hired as its Artistic Director.