"Well" at Contra Costa Civic Theatre is not a solo show (playwright Lisa Kron refers to it as a "solo show with people"), but it is often about being alone.
Kron, who adapted "Fun Home" to the stage, premiered this show in 2004, a meditation on her mother and her childhood and the very weird baggage we accumulate over the years.
In this production, Kate Dunlop Tomatis plays the Kron stand-in character, a control freak who insists from the first line that the autobiographical show is not actually autobiographical. "It's a theatrical exploration," she says.
Kron's family and particular her mother are constantly and chronically ill with a mystery malady that comes and goes with the tides. Kron herself spent time quarantined by specialist doctors during her college years, an environment distinctly and distressingly cult-like in the show.
The disquietingly affirming Head Nurse (Ben Knoll, wonderful) even freely employs the phrase "getting clear," reminiscent of Scientology speak.
Lisa's time sealed in the "allergy unit" is one spoke of the show, along with memories of growing up in Michigan against the backdrop of her mother's civil rights activism and the occasional encroachment of a class bully. (Pam Drummer-Williams, also wonderful.)
But whenever she's not fighting segregation in the greater Great Lakes area, Mom is struck down daily by her vague illness.
Actress and playwright Marlene "Bunny" Walker plays Mom, observing the show from a center stage recliner. Mom hijacks the show whenever she doesn't like where it's going and even charms the cast into mutiny; not out of antagonism but just by being too naturally personable.
Though seemingly helpless, Mom can do anything, while healthy and steadfast Lisa can't quite ever get it together.
At first, it seems Kron is skeptical of the entire notion of illness, or at least the sort people around her seem to have. The folks in the hospital appear to be kooks, Mom vacillates between paralysis and superhuman powers on a dime, and Lisa herself got well seemingly just by living life.
And possibly that's the show "Well" started out as, but like the action onstage, it's always diverted. What if other people's problems aren't just in their heads? What if the past is not what we remember it to be? What if those of us who think we're well are really defective in ways we won't admit?
The show's honesty about its own doubts and the very difficulty of writing it is engaging. And Tomatis' burgeoning dissatisfaction when life refuses to fall into line is fun to watch.
But "Well" in its final form is dissatisfying too, as it breaks the fourth wall and then punches right through the fifth and sixth walls and on into theoretical realms of room shapes with more walls than stages can bear, all broken.
That's neat, but as a conclusion, it feels like a cheat, even as the show tells us (verbally) that it doesn't want to cheat at the end.
Although, we'd be cheating if we didn't mention the best thing about this Susan Evans-directed production, which of course is Walker. Although Kron does her no favors by continually refusing to give us any solid sense of who Mom is, Walker is simply a hoot in a very honest and natural way.
There were some flubbed lines opening night, and it was hard not to notice. But Mom's been under the weather lately, so things happen.
"Well" plays through March 12 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona Avenue, El Cerrito. For tickets and information, call 510-524-9012 or visit CCCT.org.