Words are constantly shifting and changing meaning, and common phrases take on new personas in the world of Lauren Yee’s In a Word. Yee’s play tells the story of Fiona (Laura Ramadei), whose 7-year-old, emotionally disturbed son, Tristan, has been missing for two years. She has no information on his whereabouts, and she sorts through her memories endlessly to find any clue she can about why he disappeared. As Fiona flashes back to past experiences, Yee asks the audience to let go and come along for the ride.
Yee’s memory play is set in the minimalist living room of the house that Fiona shares now with only her husband Guy (José Joaquin Perez). Guy has been trying to get Fiona to leave the house for two years, and Fiona can do nothing but hunt for missing information on her son's disappearance.
As Fiona dives into her memories, they unfold—or literally blast out on stage in the middle of a scene. Actor Justin Mark takes on the crucial part of Tristan as well as all the subsidiary characters from Fiona’s memories who reenact scenes from the past with her. He is not only Tristan, but a kidnapper in a supermarket, a put-upon detective, a school principal torn between compassion for Fiona and what’s best for his school, and several others. Although the play takes place over the course of one evening, the flashbacks supply viewers pieces of the story that need to be put together like a puzzle.
Given the title, an important element is obviously wordplay. On the page Yee’s one-act drama reads more like a piece of slam poetry than a script. In the playing that may come across as a sense of disorientation, and a viewer may begin to feel to as lost and confused as Fiona. It is a satisfying experience to listen to the wordplay, and link scenes, sentences and phrases together to understand the story. This structure begs the question, Is this how memory works? Do certain words trigger certain memories, and do we piece together parts of memories in a nonconsecutive order to fill in the whole story?
Lighting designer Oona Curley has bathed the minimalist set, which she also designed, in chilly blue tones, giving the surroundings an icy feel. In contrast to that look, when Tristan is on stage the lighting becomes warmer, as if the stage were being bathed in sunshine.
Amid all the flashbacks and word games, director Tyne Rafaeli has kept the transitions tight, and the result makes the show easier to watch. The actors pop in and out of the past and present seamlessly, with the help of some swiveling panels in the walls that are used to help with quick exits, or sliding frosted doors that serve as barriers or boundaries for the characters.
All three leads create complex relationships within the short time frame of the show. Mark, who not only has to time-travel, but switch characters on the spot, does an excellent job at using his face, voice and body language. Fiona and Guy appear to have once had a strong and supportive relationship, but, since the loss of Tristan, it has become riddled with pain. Much of that is due to Fiona’s guilt over her part in Tristan’s disappearance. She has never trusted her husband enough to tell him the truth about the day Tristan was lost. Yet Perez’s Guy remains caring and supportive, and he tries everything he can think of to make Fiona happy again, even after she shoots him down. As the contours of Guy and Fiona’s relationship take shape, so does their relationship to Tristan, whom they adopted as a baby.
As a mother, Fiona often finds herself frustrated and angry at Tristan. Fiona thinks back on Tristan with warm and loving thoughts, but, in flashbacks, we see just how much anger he caused her. Guy is able to handle Tristan’s outbursts more calmly and playfully, perhaps because he does not spend all day with him at school. Fiona is not only Tristan’s mother but his teacher. After Tristan is about to be placed in a class with a teacher Fiona does not approve of, she has him transferred into her class, where he receives special treatment, even when he misbehaves. Guy, on the other hand, often gives in to Tristan’s tantrums and allows him to do anything he wants, which puts a strain the marriage.
Although the actors take a minute to settle into the world of the play, once they are there, In a Word is an engaging and quirky piece of theater, and definitely worth seeing.
The Lesser America production of In a Word plays through July 8 at the Cherry Lane Theater (38 Commerce St.). The remaining evening performances are at 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday and Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturdays. For tickets, visit https://web.ovationtix.com.