Parents. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

Parents. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

With the opening of Lisa Kron's "Well" in its New Theatre Sunday afternoon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has completed the unlikely feat of opening its 2010 season with four plays about people trying to cope with their parents.

If this were a genre, Hamlet would be the poster child, with the Pollitts in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and the Bennets in "Pride and Prejudice" close runners-up.

Add to the list Lisa Kron. Meaning both the Michigan-born playwright and performance artist who wrote "Well" and the Lisa character in the play, acted by Terri McMahon.

Ably directed by James Edmondson, the short (one hour and 40 minutes, no intermission), 2006 play is a semi-autobiographical journey to the past to wrestle with concepts of sickness and wellness, sort of.

Lisa walks on and, reading from note cards, immediately breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience. She says we're about to see a "multi-character theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness, both in the individual and in a community."

Actually, we'll see her imaginary attempt to present such a thing get comically sabotaged by her mother, Ann (Dee Maaske), who insists that Lisa has it all wrong. Ann begins the play dozing in the La-Z-Boy recliner in her slippers in her own comfortably cluttered living room at one end of the stage.

She wakes up, registers mild surprise at seeing the audience and says, "Oh, hello."

Ann is a practicing invalid who has been sick for years and years. She was a community activist who almost single-handedly integrated Lansing, Mich., in the 1960s. A frumpy Midwesterner, she's been brought here by bright, professional Lisa as a sort of living visual aid for Lisa's presentation.

Lisa was a sickly child who became a healthy woman. She's trying to get her mind around how her mother, whom she describes as "a fantastically energetic person trapped in an utterly exhausted body," can heal a community but not herself.

We time-travel to see a sick Lisa take time off from college to share space in a Chicago allergy clinic with the dour and ironically named Joy (K.T. Vogt). Playing with the black children in her neighborhood, she says that instead of pretending to be Chaka Khan, the kids should be somebody everybody can relate to, like the Partridge Family.

Lisa has hired four ensemble actors to play the people in her stories: Vogt, Brent Hinkley, G. Valmont Thomas and Gina Daniels, who also play themselves.

To think about this we must take into account the notion of metatheater (literally "beyond theater"), which seeks to smash the mirror theatrical realism would hold up to life. The imprecise, six-bit word generally signifies a play's stepping outside its own illusory world. This can be as simple as an actor breaking the fourth wall or as pervasive as actors in Pirandello rebelling against their author, or actors in Brecht's epic theater holding up placards.

Instead of placards, Lisa clutches a stack of 3-by-5 cards with notes for the play. The real Kron was a performance artist in New York City before becoming a playwright. As a Jew and a lesbian and the only white kid in a black neighborhood, she had an outsider perspective. She says in "Well" that Jewishness isn't just another type of Christianity you put on over your Christian self, and being chronically sick isn't like being yourself with all your resources and this added element of sickness on top.

The dramatic tension of "Well" stems from Ann, whom we like and trust, becoming the antagonist by taking issue with all-grown-up-and-educated Lisa's carefully constructed representations. Of course Lisa is exaggerating, an emotional truth here, a composite character there. As Ann points this out, firmly but without rancor, the ensemble actors are drawn to her and her version of events, and Lisa feels her big "multi-character theatrical exploration" slipping out of her control. Life, as Shakespeare and the Marx Brothers remind us, is messy.

McMahon grows frustrated and waves her notes at Ann. By now we feel, along with the ensemble, a reversal in the emotional gravity surrounding these women, a shift from Lisa to Ann.

But wait a minute. Didn't Lisa write this? Isn't she sabotaging her own play? If I understand her, Kron is showing us that memory is a slippery thing, that people see things differently, and that the line between art and reality is a blurry one. Personalities are ultimately mysterious, and you'll never confine your parents' reality and your feelings about them to an outline.

This isn't exactly news. Witness those painfully isolated Pollitts and those eternally opaque Austen men next door in the Bowmer Theatre. But Kron's telling is so inventive that we willingly ride with her to the end — or almost to the end. Because while McMahon and Maaske are marvelous, and 95 percent of "Well" is a fun-filled voyage of discovery, the ending lets the air out of the room.

It does not, however, compromise Kron's central insight, which is that our parents live in an alternate universe where everything we've learned in life has no power.

Bill Varble writes about art and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.