Lauren Yee’s “in a word” is, on one level, about a married couple whose seven-year-old son has been missing for two years, the mother’s grief and guilt causing a breakdown in her relationship with her husband, and also in her relationship with reality. But what most distinguishes this intriguing puzzle of a play is the playwright’s concerns with the concomitant breakdown in language.
Yee comes close to explaining this aim explicitly near the end of the 70-minute piece, when the mother, Fiona, exclaims:
“….in times like this
Words fail me.
Like they just stop trying
Like whatever they were doing before
They don’t now.”
It’s Yee’s sharp perception that loss is often accompanied by uncertainty and confusion; and that at such times words can change their meaning and lose their power. Such feelings cannot be summed up in a word, though people try. (When has “I’m so sorry for your loss” ever done anything for anybody?) Both the playwright and director Tyne Rafaeli seem more interested in driving home those feelings in us than solving the puzzle of the story for us. Time is fluid — there are many flashbacks. One of the three actors in the cast (stand-out Justin Mark) portrays eight different characters, sometimes in rapid succession, from Tristan to the detective working the case to the kidnapper. There is much fantasy and absurdist word play. At one point, Fiona sternly instructs both her son Tristan and her husband Guy to take their naughty words out of their pockets and put them in a glass jar she’s holding. In another scene, the principal at the school where Fiona teaches orders her to take a leave of absence – which becomes a leaf of absence, and then a tree of absence, and the principal gives her a gift of a little tree. (It doesn’t stop there; a “tree of absence” is reiterated in so many different ways it counts as a theme.)
Still, the basic story unfolds sufficiently for us to stay engaged. We piece together that Tristan was adopted, that he was “difficult” – he had tantrums; his father Guy considered him “retarded.” We learn from the start that the parents think Tristan was kidnapped, though we’re given reason for doubt: Fiona meets her child’s kidnapper in the neighborhood grocery store; he gives her a cantaloupe; she brings the cantaloupe to the detective handling the case. He cuts it up and eats it.
A metaphor? Fiona’s hallucination?
For all such absurdist swerving, “in a word” does conclude with something close to a revelation/resolution, which if it doesn’t solve the puzzle, at least aligns some of the pieces, offering us a solid glimpse into Fiona’s complicated, contradictory, not always admirable emotions. I suspect that what I’ll most remember from “in a word” is not the hint of a cogent story, nor even the semblance of psychological insight, but Lauren Yee’s use of language.
In A Word
Lesser America at Cherry Lane
Written by Lauren Yee
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
Set and Lighting Design – Oona Curley
Sound Design – Stowe Nelson
Costume Design – Andrea Hood
Props – Brittany Coyne
Cast: Laura Ramadei as Fiona, Jose Joaquin Perez as Guy, Justin Mark as eight characters including Tristan, the detective, and the kidnapper.
Running time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.
In a word is scheduled to run through July 8th, 2017