Mom crashes playwright-performers romp at ACT

Imagine being on stage starring in your own play when your mother shows up. You’re up there trying to narrate the story of your life, but Mom interrupts you at every turn. Imagine she then incites the rest of the cast to give up on the play midway through.

Welcome to Lisa Kron’s nightmare.

The Jewish playwright and performer faces that scenario in her new comic play “Well,” now in a one-month run at San Francisco’s Geary Theater. All but one member of the original New York cast has come along for the ride in the new ACT production.

“Well” is, according to Kron, its author and star, a play about “illness and wellness.” It is that and more. “Well” is a romp that little by little breaches several concentric circles of theatrical reality. It’s also a touching study of the mother-daughter relationship.

Jayne Houdyshell plays Ann, Lisa’s mother. Like the real-life Krons, the stage versions of Lisa and Ann suffer (or think they suffer) from severe allergies. Lisa recounts her childhood in Lansing, Mich., growing up not just in the only Jewish family in the neighborhood, but as “the only Jews in the family.” (Her mother converted; her father was the sole surviving member of a family killed during the Holocaust.)

She also makes pointed observations about her Jewish upbringing, noting that Judaism “is viewed in the Midwest as a kind of accessory that you wear on top of your Christianity.”

A quartet of backup players takes on multiple roles in recreating Kron’s old neighborhood and a creepy in-patient allergy clinic. But Ann inexorably intrudes on Lisa’s version of history, eventually wearing down the supporting cast. It’s hard to tell where one reality ends and another begins.

Audiences so far have loved every second of it.

“Here’s what the play posits,” says Kron. “We construct our own narrative, but alternate narratives can be equally true. The play itself plays on assumptions the character of Lisa makes about the nature of theater.”

Kron is known for previous one-woman shows like “2.5 Minute Ride,” which played in San Francisco a few years back. She has often drawn on her life experience as a Jewish lesbian Midwesterner, but “Well” is her first play with a cast.

“I don’t have a compulsion to talk about myself,” says Kron, “but I do have a compulsion to make theater. Someone once said the difference between doing therapy and doing a solo show is that therapy is for you; doing a show is for an audience. I’m using myself for this greater purpose.”

That idealism runs deep in Kron’s life and work. As “Well” depicts on stage, Kron was brought up in an integrated neighborhood, and her mother was head of the local neighborhood association. Her family belonged to a socially progressive Conservative synagogue, and Kron’s youth group was so tight-knit, the members refused to disband until everyone finally scattered to attend college.

“The thing in Jewish culture that makes so many activists,” theorizes Kron, “is that concern with justice and the relationship between Jews and the world. We are drawn to the intellectualism.”

After earning a degree in theater arts, she moved to New York City to jump-start her career. In the 1990s, as a member of the Five Lesbian Brothers, she won an Obie Award for “The Secretaries.” In 1996, she picked up a Drama Desk Award nomination for her solo work.

“I love live theater,” she says. “Because it’s a medium so eclipsed by film and TV, I’m really interested in the dynamics of live performance and what makes it different.”

“Well” has been her greatest success to date. A review in The New York Times calls it “deeply affecting.” She hopes to bring the show back to New York, only next time kicking it up a notch, perhaps to Broadway.

Of course, there was one critic Kron particularly feared: her mother. But Mom gave “Well” a good review.

“My mother was terrorized during the creation of the play,” recalls Kron. “She was afraid it was going to do what Lisa the character does, which is to judge her. When she finally saw it, she felt a weird kind of disassociation from it. And afterwards, she went to each member of cast with a disclaimer sheet.”

“Well” by Lisa Kron plays Friday, Feb. 11, to Sunday, March 13, at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. Tickets: $11-$68. Information: (415) 749-2228.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.