Storytelling is an act of trust — a fact Lisa Kron understands as well as any contemporary playwright. Kron spent much of her early career chronicling her idiosyncratic family, a collection of Midwestern misfits who achieved profound success and happiness in spite of personal and societal adversity. 2.5 Minute Ride, her breakthrough solo work, receives its area premiere at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, under the assured direction of Elaina Di Monaco.
The woman standing before us clicks through a series of photographs, describing each one in vivid detail. Light refracts through a picture frame mounted to the stage wall. No images appear, but she recounts the supposed content of each slide — her grandparents, her father’s hometown in Germany, her father as a young boy in the interwar period — with such specificity that we begin to see what she sees. We effortlessly enter into her mind’s eye.
Banality of evil
The play’s title refers to a roller coaster at the Ohio amusement park where Lisa (Leah Walton) and the Kron clan vacation every summer. Stories of the park — a three-hour journey from the family home in Lansing, Michigan, that regularly turns into an “epic cross-country trek” — disarm the audience with humor, as do Lisa’s tales of her brother’s marital quest in the early days of online dating. “He signed onto America Online and went right to the Jewish singles' room and got down to the business of finding a wife,” she tells us.
These lighthearted, relatable asides bookend the play’s more serious business: the story of Lisa’s trip with her father, Walter, to the small German town where he grew up. They also visit Auschwitz, where his parents likely perished in the final days of World War II. Walter escaped Germany as part of the Kindertransport, returning after the war as an army interrogator. Although he successfully assimilated to American life, Kron suggests that, like all émigrés, a part of him has remained a refugee.
As a playwright, Kron has always valued an economy of language. Her simplest lines are often the most shattering, as when Walter reflects on the surreal nature of their trip: “Tonight we’re having a beer with dinner,” he says to his daughter, “and tomorrow we’ll be at Auschwitz.” Lisa’s candid observation that “the first Auschwitz building looks like a college campus” cuts straight to the heart of the banal, recognizable evil that occurred there. The comedic moments liberally sprinkled throughout only reinforce the quietly devastating effect of her more pointed observations.
What would you do?
These tonal shifts require a performance that balances levity and soberness, which Walton almost fully delivers. Kron notes in the script that “the prevailing tone of the piece should be authentic (not performed) speech.” Occasionally, Walton announces her emotional reactions rather than communicating them, by putting too fine a point on a certain line or deploying an unnecessarily outsized gesture. In a work as idiomatic as this, these moments stand out.
But where Kron herself sometimes projects a natural elegance that can leave an audience at arm’s length, Walton exudes warmth and openness. She’s at her best once she drops the self-conscious conventions of performance and talks almost directly to the audience, or when she slumps into the stage’s sole chair (Sara Outing designed the striking, abstract set) to tell a story about her father’s internal struggle with moral ambiguity. Had he not been born a Jew, would Walter have had the strength to reject Nazism? Could anyone answer that with surety?
Di Monaco highlights this ambiguity throughout the production. 2.5 Minute Ride is speculative and searching; Lisa may have traveled to Germany and Poland to better understand Walter’s life, but she leaves with more questions than answers. As an artist, she builds something tangible from that uncertainty. “I’m putting my hand on my father’s life,” she says near the end of the play. Under the skilled guidance of Walton and Di Monaco, that hand clasps a beating heart.