In a Word
Words and the memories they struggle to recall piece themselves together like puzzles with missing and/or wrong pieces in Lauren Yee’s In a Word. Guy, a husband, struggles to persuade his wife Fiona to go out for her birthday celebration dinner. She stubbornly resists, rooting herself in tangled and tortured memories involving their son, whose second-year anniversary of a still-unsolved disappearance at the age of eight corresponds with this, her birthday. Their often-frustrating, real-time battle of words is continuously interrupted by their internal playbacks of past conversations and events related to the son, his disappearance, and the 2-year investigation.
We enter the muddled world of their mind’s eyes through many short scenes played out before us with the help of a third actor, Greg Ayers, who takes on multiple characters of their dreamed scenes. He comes and goes and often just watches from the sides, filling out the casts of their memories by becoming the missing boy, the principal of his school, the detective searching for him, or a number of other players on their minds’ stages. What is real and what is not becomes confusing for us (and clearly for Fiona) as we try to figure out when are we in the now and when in the past and what in the past is actually recalled accurately. Scattered props like kid’s toys may be in the room before us or may only be in the mother’s recall. Sounds, visitors, a tree in the front yard may or may not be real. Words increasingly cannot be relied on to describe inner pictures of what happened or what is happening now. They morph mid-dialogue (“leave of absence” becomes “leaf of absence” becomes “abstinence”) or are entirely missing as Fiona continuously refuses to talk to her pleading husband about what is really going on inside her head.
Fiona’s and Guy’s words are failing to answer what happened to their son, what is going on now inside them, and what is increasingly wrong with their marriage. The words said and perhaps some not yet said are deeply rooted in Fiona’s mind and create a reality only she seems to know. We see their power in a front-yard, gnarled, almost ghostly tree (which is maybe real, maybe not) whose leaves are random words and blanks ready to be filled in.
Giovanna Sardelli aptly creates an air of mounting tension and mystery as she directs the cast of three. The multiple scenes and even scenes within scenes (as memories push their way into reality) transition without pause and at times in near crazed, frenetic pace that suggest racing thoughts. When we first meet Jessica Bates as Fiona, her eyes are already red and swollen from much crying; and real tears continue to flow freely throughout her powerful portrayal of this mother who alternates between blank, silent stares and emotional outbursts. Through his multiple personages, Greg Ayers skillfully becomes her haunting memories, taking on sometimes-exaggerated forms as she remembers events and people in ways that fit her present reality and story. In expressing Fiona’s thoughts, his to-date, unsuccessful detective is right out of a bad TV series, a “B” version of Columbo; his principal (Fiona’s former boss who puts her on leave) is a bit too prissy and increasingly unfeeling; his Tristan is just too docile and perfect to match the ADHD boy we learn he actually was. Mr. Ayers masterfully switches to take us also into Guy’s head where his tantrums of the ADHD Tristan or his beer-guzzling bravado of Guy’s best friend (“You just gotta do this” type of advice) give us a glimpse of the father’s own internal conversations with himself. As Guy, Cassidy Brown is appropriately sympathetic to and exasperated by his wife’s paralyzing sorrow. Mr. Brown seems to give us our one hold on realism; and yet we cannot be sure if he too is creating a mental storyline that interprets the past in ways to help meet his own needs. Together, cast and director weave an intriguing ‘what can we believe’ ‘where is he,’ ‘who did it’ mystery.
The rolling, world premiere of In a Word will makes its way to three more cities, during which time Ms. Yee will probably continue to tighten and shape what is already a compelling ninety minutes. There are elements that are not clear to me why they need to be brought to bear so often (like repeated obsession with the adopted Tristan’s birth mother and her story). The symbol of the tree pops up in somewhat weird ways in various forms, disrupting my own train of thought as I tried to figure out ‘now what does that mean?’ But, these are only minor diversions in what is a gut-wrenching portrayal of what of the difficulty to face, accept, let go, and move on from life’s inevitable disappointments and tragedies.
Rating: 4 E’s