The Sum and Its Partsby Pat Launer February 27, 2017
Lisa Kron is a trailblazer. The acclaimed actor/playwright has written and performed deeply personal, autobiographical monologues that are unique in structure and immersive for the audience. Most famously, she wrote the book and lyrics to a musical based on the best-selling graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, “Fun-Home,” which won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical of 2015. In Kron’s first foray into musical theater, she took home two Tonys, for Best Book of a Musical and Best Musical Score.
Even more revolutionary: “Fun-Home” (with a national tour now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A., through April 1) was the first full-scale Broadway production of a lesbian coming-of-age story. And it also made history by featuring the first female team to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score: Kron and acclaimed composer Jeannine Tesori.
Kron (pronounced ‘crone’) was born in the Midwest, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In one of her plays (“Well”), she says that she felt like an outsider even in her own family, because they were the only Jews in town. Her mother’s family is Christian, though her mother converted to Judaism for her marriage. None of Kron’s father’s German Jewish family survived the Holocaust.
In 1965, the Krons moved to Lansing, Michigan, where Lisa was enrolled in a predominantly African American elementary school. Her mother, she tells us in “Well,” wanted her to help integrate the school. Mandatory racial integration came to the Lansing schools three years later.
Kron has traced her love of theater to the Purim plays she performed in as a child at her Reconstructionist/Conservative temple, Kehilat Israel. In junior high, she was determined to be the funniest girl anyone knew. She accomplished this by telling stories.
After graduating as valedictorian of her high school, she went on to major in theater at Kalamazoo College. A theater professor helped her land a role with a national touring company.
After moving to New York in 1984, she acted in various productions, and in 1989, she and four friends became The Five Lesbian Brothers, a theater group that performed witty, satiric material from a feminist/lesbian perspective. Their plays were produced by the New York Theatre Workshop, the Joseph Papp Public Theater and others. They published two books, won an Obie Award and toured the country.
Telling intimate tales
Ultimately, Kron began developing stories about her family. As New York Times chief theater critic Ben Brantley put it, “Fans of that beleaguered literary form, the memoir, can breathe a little more easily this morning. Kron’s sparkling autobiographical play, “Well,” has arrived on Broadway … to restore the honor of a genre that was slipping into disgrace.”
“Well” opened on Broadway in 2006, and earned Kron a Tony nomination for Featured Actress in a Play. Her first play, “2.5 Minute Ride,” which had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1996, went on to win the 1999 New York Press Award for Best Autobiographical Solo Show.
One play was about her mother; the other, her father. Diversionary Theatre executive artistic director Matt Morrow thought they’d work wonderfully in repertory. He was the first person in the country to come up with the idea.
“I’ve always loved Lisa’s writing,” says Morrow. “I was the first to produce and direct what I call ‘Lisa without Lisa,’ the first New York revival of ‘2.5 Minute Ride,’ in 2008, with someone else in the lead. I wanted to expose her as a legitimate playwright in her own right, her work not dependent on her performing it.
“I knew when I got to Diversionary that I wanted to bring Lisa Kron with me. And I wanted to dedicate my second season to female playwrights. After re-reading ‘2.5’ and ‘Well,’ I was incredibly moved again. Once you reach a certain age, your parents’ mortality starts to weigh on you. This is the issue Lisa was wrestling with in both these astonishing plays.
“I wanted both shows to be led by strong female voices, and that’s what we have in directors Rosina [Reynolds] and Kym [Pappas]. The design team is also predominantly female.
“I knew we had to have two special actors to take on Lisa. They had to have comic chops and also the capacity for profound emotional depth. Shana Wride, a San Diego superstar, immediately came to mind for the solo show. And Sam Ginn has an authentic comic sense, and a compelling presence. There’s a natural chemistry between them. Not that they ever appear onstage together, but it’s important for the Repertory to feel whole.”
In “2.5 Minute Ride,” Kron invites the audience on “a roller coaster ride through the Kron family album.” Equal parts hilarity and horror, the play switches back and forth between Kron’s journey to Auschwitz with her German-born septuagenarian father, a Holocaust survivor (at age 15, he was part of the Kindertransport); the annual pilgrimage of the Christian side of her family to the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio; and her brother’s wedding to his Internet bride at Seaview Jewish Center in Canarsie, Brooklyn.
“Well” focuses on Kron’s mother and their sometimes fraught relationship. She juxtaposes her mother’s nearly lifelong incapacitating illness with her dynamic social activism, using sickness as a metaphor for societal “illnesses” such as racism.
A roller coaster ride
“2.5 Minute Ride,” a solo play, is directed by Rosina Reynolds, who recently snagged a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, for her tour de force turn as Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony” at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad.
“When I first read the play,” says the English-born Reynolds, “I was intrigued. It had some similarities to ‘Golda’s Balcony,’ in that it jumped around from story to story.
“The stories are well written and funny,” Reynolds says. “But it’s a challenge maintaining a through-line. [Kron] set out to tell one story, but there was something else that was begging to be told that she wasn’t ready to tell.
“Finally, three-quarters of the way through, she tells a story about her father’s experience after the war, when he went back to Germany as a U.S. Army interrogator of Nazi war criminals. During one interrogation, he realizes how easily he, too, could have been drawn into this ideology. ‘If I wasn’t so lucky to be born a Jew,’ he says, ‘I would’ve been a Nazi.’ It’s a shocking moment.
“The point,” Reynolds continues, “is that we’re all potentially culpable. It’s easy to point a finger, but we’ve never been put to the test. This is a critical moment for Lisa; this memory spills out of her and she has a moment of panic, a kind of meltdown. But this fills her father out as a person, and when she begins to see him completely, she loves him more for it.”
“Shana is doing a tremendous job,” Rosina says of her leading lady. “She’s charming and engaging, and very intelligent – onstage and off. She’s a great person for the role, a great storyteller.
“The fact that she’s not Jewish is incidental,” Reynolds adds. “Just as it was when I played Golda.
“This play is about family – the good and the bad of it. Accepting them, warts and all. Lisa Kron draws the characters with love, even though she highlights their eccentricities.”
Which brings us to “Well,” in which many similar elements surface.
A deep “Well”
Director Kym Pappas, co-artistic director of InnerMission Productions, is helming this piece, which features “Lisa Kron” (played by Samantha Ginn) and her mother, Ann (Annie Hinton), as well as several other characters/actors.
“Initially, I was drawn to the mother-daughter relationship,” says Pappas. “But there’s this whole play-within-a-play. You think it’s one thing, then the whole thing deconstructs. It’s a memoir in a big sense, about Lisa’s mother and her work in the community. And how we affect each other. And what we don’t know about people we think we know best.
“It’s also about the stories we choose to
tell,” Pappas continues, “and how we think about and remember the people in our lives. The thing with our parents is, we try to grow away from them; we don’t want to be like them. Lisa discovers that the core of who she is actually is the best part of her mother.
“Lisa’s mother always claimed that her debilitating exhaustion was due to allergies, though Lisa thinks that these days, she would probably be diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia. Lisa herself was once admitted to a hospital allergy unit. There’s an undercurrent of worry that she might end up like her mother.”
One of the most challenging parts of “Well,” says Pappas, is the fact that the other characters are called by their own real names, and are exhorted, in the Playwright’s Introduction, to be themselves.
“It’s hard to get them to drop the acting, and get in and out of it,” Pappas asserts. “The whole play doesn’t fall apart till Ann breaks character and becomes Annie. It’s all very meta.
“It’s a very human story. In the end, Lisa learns a lot, especially after reading something her mother wrote for the neighborhood organization. ‘Integration means weaving into the whole, even the parts that
are complicated or painful.’ What is more healing than that? When I read it, the air was taken out of me. We are ultimately
responsible for each other. How did Matt know we would need this message right now, when the whole world is going crazy?”
“The bottom line,” asserts Rosina Reynolds, “is, we are the sum total of everyone around us – all our family members and all we’ve been through. The more you know about them, the more you find out about yourself and stand taller.”
“These plays can be very funny,” says Pappas, “then they hit you in the heart. I hope audiences love them as much as we do.”
Just for the record
Update on Lisa Kron: She still lives in New York, with her wife, playwright Madeleine George, whose play, “The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence” ran at Moxie Theatre in 2015. Together, they are members of the social justice congregation B’nai Yushurun. Kron, who was recently awarded the 2017 Kleban Prize for writing in musical theater (she won for “most promising musical theater librettist”), is working on another musical, an adaptation of the Russian movie “Stilyagi,” about, as she puts it, “the desire for human expressiveness and political pushback against that.”
As this Diversionary repertory clearly demonstrates, both of those elements are in Kron’s DNA.
Lisa Kron’s plays, “2.5 Minute Ride” and “Well” run in repertory through March 19 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., in University Heights. Tickets ($27-$45) and information are at (619) 220-0097;