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Speak, memory

Lisa Kron digs into her family history in the comic play 'Well'

In her autobiographical comedy "Well," Lisa Kron tells the audience right off the bat what to expect. Reading from a note card , the black-clad Kron -- as the character Lisa -- proclaims it will be "a multi-character theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community ." It is not, she stresses, a play about her chronically ill mother, Ann, who happens to be sleeping over there in her La-Z-Boy recliner. It's about illness in general.

Of course in "Well," which begins previews at the Huntington Theatre Company tonight, that's not the way things turn out.

As Lisa tries to focus on universal ideas, the personal rises up to bite her. Ann , in her frumpy housedress and slippers, wakes up and challenges her, nicely, to be honest about her intentions for the play and corrects her memories of the past. Warm, endearing, and frank, Ann somehow takes over the show. And Lisa is such an unpleasant, overcontrolling pill that the four other actors playing various roles mutiny.

Kron's much nicer in real life.

"Ultimately I had to create a character who is the foil," the playwright/actress says recently over breakfast in Kenmore Square. "The structure of the play is that I'm the sophisticated theater person from New York and there's this Midwestern lady in a chair, and I'm going to be the one they identify with. But the audience can see right through me from the beginning. As the play goes on, she becomes the one the audience relates to and I'm the pathologized one at the end. That's a really gratifying journey."

The play's journey has also been a gratifying one for Kron. Directed by Leigh Silverman , "Well" premiere d with Jayne Houdyshell as Ann at New York's Public Theater in 2004. After a run in San Francisco it went to Broadway, where it earned two Tony nominations.

Kron, who often performs autobiographical solo shows, mines her illness-prone, socially activist family life in "Well." The comedy switches from the present to scenes in elementary school and the hospital allergy unit she stayed in when she was 19 -- which ultimately broke her out of her own cycle of illness -- and to the confrontation with her mother she's trying so hard to avoid. She explores her feelings of guilt about becoming healthy and her resentment that her mother is not able to do the same.

"I look at my mother and think, you could make yourself better," Kron says. "Is it my mother's option, or my cousins' or my aunts' option to be different? Or is there some other system at work that's different from mine?"

The play is as much about the health of a community as it is about personal health. Ann wanted her children raised in an integrated community, so as black people started moving into their Lansing, Mich., neighborhood in the '60s and '70s and whites moved out, the Krons stayed put. Despite her many ailments, Ann Kron, as president of the West Side Neighborhood Association , organized social activities like parades to bring the community together .

"I would say the two things we believe in as a family are allergies and racial integration," Lisa jokes. How did Ann manage that? "My mother is a fantastically energetic person trapped in an utterly exhausted body," she says. "It's very confusing. Her energy level has two settings: all or nothing."

Mary Pat Gleason, who plays Ann at the Huntington, says, "I would be really amazed if anyone tackled this play and didn't fall in love with the character of Ann. She's a woman of such integrity, humor, and incredible humanity. It's a privilege to play her. But oh, my God, is it daunting. It's a big task."

Kron says she always wanted to write about her neighborhood, which was marginalized by the city when she was growing up. The school board closed schools, parks deteriorated, and developers sought zoning changes to carve up the lovely 1920s Tudor houses on maple-lined streets into apartments.

"The things that made a healthy community were being taken away from the outside," Kron says. "It's similar to this concept of health. [Society had] been in a prolonged period of incredible wealth, and as a result you'd hear people say, 'If you believe in yourself enough, if you try hard enough, you will get money, health, everything based on your individual beliefs or spiritual system.' There was a complete lack of thinking that maybe people are part of a system, maybe we're not all independent actors."

As a child from the only white (and only Jewish) family in the school, Kron didn't find the integration process always harmonious. A 10-year-old black girl named Lori , who was mean to Kron in grade school, periodically bursts into the play to torment her anew. And matters weren't helped by Kron's childhood geekiness, including her penchant for wearing embarrassingly wrong clothes. She and friends once dressed up as their favorite "Little House on the Prairie" characters, complete with bonnets, and agreed to wear the costumes to school the next day. Of course Kron was the only one who did.

Kron, who's been in New York since 1984, has made a name for herself with the Obie -winning troupe the Five Lesbian Brothers, as well as her one-woman shows. Her "2.5 Minute Ride ," which ran at the American Repertory Theatre in 1998, deals with her father's experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

"It's true I have used autobiographical material to make my plays because that's what I know what to do," Kron says. "I've been fortunate to have these parents who have intersected with the world in these particular ways and have intimate, expansive points of view about the world. And they're complete characters. So I've been able to use them to explore these bigger ideas and to do these plays that are actually ultimately plays of ideas."

Kron says both parents are still alive and support her shows: "My mother loves the play and is terrorized by it at the same time."

They may even come to see it at the Huntington, though it will depend on how they are feeling. "She does sleep in her La-Z-Boy. She's in an incredible amount of pain: back pain, fibromyalgia. My father's legally blind. They get in the car and drive 20 minutes and get out and stay at a hotel. And then they get back in and drive for 14 hours at a stretch. My mother says I exaggerate. But when people have met my mother they say 'I thought you were kidding.' "