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All's 'Well' At Wellesley Rep :: Diana Lobontiu On Lisa Kron's Meta Masterpiece

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jan 18, 2019

Years before playwright Lisa Kron won the Tony for writing the book and lyrics to "Fun Home," the stage version of cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic novel memoir that played on Broadway in 2015, she wrote a twisty little play called "Well."

"Well," which premiered off-Broadway in 2004 and then had a 2006 sun on Broadway, finds Kron herself — or an actress playing her — taking the stage to talk about health issues and chronic illness; also, she talks about her mother... who, as it happens, is also on the stage, along with various other characters, including characters who take on the names (though not the stories or actual identities) of the actors who play them. As the play unfolds, reality and fiction begin to twine and unravel, and the past, as seen by one character, turns out to have more than one interpretation when other points of view come into play.

The play comes to Wellesley Repertory Theatre under the direction of the company's new artistic director, Marta Rainer. One of the actors in the Wellesley Rep production, Diana Lobontiu, is a recent graduate of the college's Theatre Arts program; this show, she tells EDGE, is her first "paid gig." But the freshly-minted thesp isn't unprepared for the rigors of Kron's play; the author of her own one-woman show, Lobontiu has plenty of relevant experience, given that her show features seven characters and she plays them all.

Delving into the mysteries of Kron's play, with its "A Track" (evidently, a "more real" level of reality at which the actors, playing themselves as well as the play's "fictional" characters, reside) and it's — what? "B Track?" "C Track," too? — and its many revelations became part and parcel of Lobontiu's chat with EDGE, and to be honest, this correspondent's head is still spinning. Imagine what the actual play might be like... or, better, go and see for yourself. "Well" plays at Wellesley through Feb. 10.


EDGE: "Well" is about Lisa Kron, Tony Award-winning of "Fun Home," coming to terms with issues of health and illness, her relationship with her mother, and a past that she sees one way but can be viewed, of course, through other prisms, too... and there's sort of a meta thing in which truth and fiction intertwine, also. What in all of these rich themes is the central theme? Or how do they all tie up together?

Diana Lobontiu: It's an interesting thing because, I think, the dealing with health and wellness part, and also looking to the past — [those parts] sort of butt heads a little bit. The play is about her trying to reconcile these two big ideas. In the first one, her mother is trying to create an integrated neighborhood in Lansing, Michigan, while at the same time being very sick — she's been ill throughout her life. And, at the same time, trying to integrate her own illness into that.

I think the play is about her desperately trying to wrestle all these things together that don't necessarily fit together, and her trying to [fit herself] into this little solo show — with other people in it, right? But then there's pushback from the actors themselves; there's pushback from her mother, who is on stage the whole time — that is, the actress is on stage the whole time and starts pushing back against Lisa's personal narrative. There are all of these obstacles that come up and confront Lisa's idea of what the past was.

EDGE: Speaking of pushback, I find it interesting that this is a show about health issues written from a woman's perspective, because so many health issues that turned out to be real — fibromyalgia, for instance — might have been seen as women's health issues and initially sort of scoffed before underlying physiological issues were identified. Does this play address that gender issue at all, whether directly or indirectly?

Diana Lobontiu: There's a section of the play where Lisa's mom is talking about her experiences with being chronically ill being taken seriously. One of her quotes is, "They didn't know anything about allergies when I was in college; a doctor told me that I had mono six times." So, you know, I think it does touch on how throughout the years certain illnesses weren't taken seriously. I don't know if it is specifically geared toward illnesses that mostly affect women, or maybe I'm just not versed enough in what illnesses do affect women, but the story definitely is told through a woman's lens. Like, all the patients in the ward are women. It definitely does talk about issues that affect them as women.

EDGE Many of the cast members play more than one character. You play "Joy" and "Dottie," as well as yourself... how to those roles tie up together?

Diana Lobontiu: I think they tie up together in terms of little eccentricities that I bring, as myself, to the play. I think that Joy is this sort of bored Goth character; she's been in the allergy unit for years. She's been through the wringer and knows everything in the hospital and is kind of disillusioned. And then Dottie is this frantic little lady in the neighborhood. She has this birdlike energy. She's very nervous. And then the character of me — which is not really me, it's just the "A Track" — is sort of connected in the fact that she discovers through [another character] that she is allergic to malls. Or, rather, the formaldehyde that is in the products in malls. That is a huge revelation for her. And she's, "Oh, my friends always tell me that I'm no fun, and I thought it was just me, but actually it's this illness that I've discovered [I suffer from]." And that ties back to Joy in the fact that Joy is also ill, and has these vulnerabilities that don't really show through. But I think in this case — in the case of Diana, or "A Track" — they start showing.

EDGE So it sounds like this fictional story is now looping around to illuminate someone's "real life" situation. Hence the "A Track" distinction — sort of different levels of "reality" within the play, or ways in which "truth" and "fiction" can rub up and interact.

Diana Lobontiu: There's this wonderful little moment in the play where I'm playing Joy, but I'm also Diana the actor having just discovered that I have this illness, and I have to sort of meld the two together into one scene, and some of the lines are, like, you know, "I know I'm no fun to be around; I'm just so tired of being sick." On top of it is Joy the character, but underneath it is this quite, cathartic moment that I experience [thanks to what I learn]. It's a lot of layers that happen.

EDGE: So, although you've been cast as "yourself," you're not really playing yourself. You're not bringing dialogue in that you have made up, and you're not referencing your own real life. You just play a character who's already been written, but she's assigned your real name, even though she's fictional. It's like a hall of mirrors!

Diana Lobontiu: Yeah, basically. There's a small amount of improv, but it doesn't shift the plot. Mostly, I'm playing the "A Track."

EDGE: By which you mean the fictional character who takes your actual name and who finds her "real life" being affected by the experience of being in the play. Got it... I think! I haven't seen the play, and I was wondering what it meant that actors seemed to be playing "themselves."

Diana Lobontiu: It's interesting! I — and a lot of the other actors — came in with this idea that we were just going to play ourselves, and I think the more we got into the roles we were, "Oh — these people are nothing like us, really." The "A Track" Diana that I am playing in the play is really starved for affection and really latches on to [another character named] Anne as this mother figure, and I'm, like, "Personally, would I ever do that? Would I ever show that much vulnerability to someone who I just met?" Like, "Probably not!" But it's something you look to sort of integrate into yourself, and I think you let yourself have smaller, more naturalistic reactions when you're playing yourself, as opposed to the other two characters [I'm playing], where I'm making these very clear, bold, big distinctions between them. Myself, I think I'm just a little bit more relaxed.

EDGE: That sounds technically quite challenging, even for someone who's done a lot of acting... I think I read that this is your acting debut, so is it harder than you expected it would be?

Diana Lobontiu: It was harder in the beginning, I think, before I did that character work. I have written a solo show and performed it in fringe festivals this past summer, in which I play seven characters, so I'm sort of used to making big, bold choices in terms of characters. It's not something I'm afraid to do.

EDGE

Diana Lobontiu: Yes. So, I grew up very Catholic — I really wanted to be a saint when I was a child, and then I obviously grew out of it and I stopped going to church, etc. But I was always fascinated with this idea of saints, and how saints would do all these crazy, insane things and then people would worship them, basically, but they were these paragons of humility at the same time. But, like, some of the things they did were just very ostentatious — they would climb on poles and live in the woods for ten years and require people to come and feed them, or else they would starve very publicly. So, that always struck me as an interesting juxtaposition. I'm also Romanian, and so I found this saint who was Romanian, and I sort of based it loosely off her life.

My show is called "Sfânta (Holy One)," and it's about a wannabe saint who's living in Romania in 1680. She desperately wants to become a saint because she wants to be famous and she wants people to love her and worship her — that ostentatious side of sainthood that I picked up on. Then there are all these people in the convent, like this frat bro who's the altar boy, and there's a sister who is very annoying and also pregnant; all these characters are giving her pushback in terms of her goal of becoming a saint and treading on anyone necessary to do so. And it's also a queer love story. She falls in love with a shepherdess at the convent. There's a lot of stuff happening in it.

EDGE: Wow! Sounds like good preparation for Lisa Kron's play.

Diana Lobontiu: It's really cool to play someone else's characters; that was an interesting thing [about doing 'Well']. And it's fun to decide that someone's going to talk in a low voice, or is gonna talk very quickly and be very nervous. Once you arrive at those decisions — once you make the connection between the text and what you want your character to look like and feel like on stage — it's really fun to portray. But it was definitely kind of a struggle to make those distinctions.

EDGE: You've been involved in the directing side of theater at Wellesley, from which you recently graduated as a major in Theatre Studies, so this must be a real homecoming. Did your earlier experience at Wellesley plug into how you ended up in this role? Did they kind of come to you and say, "We know you from what you've done before; do you want to come be part of this show?"

Diana Lobontiu: Yeah — I think that played a part in it. I actually know Marta, who I worked with on two productions with Wellesley rep, and who was my thesis advisor, and I've taken a bunch of classes with, and stuff. I was, like, "Hey, I really love Lisa Kron's work, I'd really love to audition for this." She was, like, "Oh yeah, we'd love to see an audition from you." So she sent me the sides and I sent her a video because I wasn't in Boston at the time. And, yeah! It feels really nice that my first paid gig is back where I came from, and in a space where I feel really comfortable. I know a lot of people that I'm working with right now, at the beginning of my career, which probably won't be the case from now on. It's really nice to come back home and be among friends.

EDGE: Lisa Kron is in a same-sex marriage, and "Fun Home," of course, is based on the graphic novel memoir of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Along with the feminine perspective, does a lesbian point of view come into the play at all?

Diana Lobontiu: You know, it's interesting, because it does not, that much. I think by the time [Lisa Kron] had written this she was established, and it's told like she's playing herself on stage, so people kind of knew generally that she was a lesbian. She does say it a couple of times, and she has this line where she says, "How did I get better from my allergies? I had this girlfriend who cured me with sex," which is a funny line. It's nice because it's not, you know, "I'm a lesbian, I'm a lesbian, I'm a lesbian; here are all the reasons I'm a lesbian." I think it's subtly threaded throughout, and it's sort of an assumption that the play rests on that you know about her as a character.

EDGE: It's nice when it's part of the character and it can be part of the story without being the story.

Diana Lobontiu: Yeah, exactly. Fundamentally, it's about — as we talked about at the beginning — so many different things. [The lesbian angle] is not taking center stage.

EDGE: You thank your girlfriend in your bio for this show. What has she had to put up with? You reciting lines around the house? Late nights at rehearsal?

Diana Lobontiu: Definitely late nights at rehearsal. She's also working box office for the show, and she's living on campus while she's doing it, so I'll come over after rehearsal and I'll kind of bitch about what happened at rehearsal, and she'll feed me dinner — which is really nice of her, and I really appreciate it!


"Well" runs Jan. 17 — Feb. 10 at Wellesley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and more information please go to https://www.wellesleyrepertorytheatre.org/shows/well/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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