By the time you realize that you’ve been emotionally captured by in a word, the breathtaking drama now playing at The Hub Theatre in Fairfax, it is too late to escape. Not that you would want to. Because in a brief 80 minutes, the story spun by Playwright Lauren Yee and Director Matt Bassett is so intense, heartbreaking (and heartbreakingly funny), and ultimately theatrical, that you will be a bit dazzled at how cathartic the drama ends up being.
The scenario begins at a wrenching place: It is the two year anniversary of the disappearance of Tristan (Robert Bowen Smith), the seven year-old foster child of Fiona (Kerri Rambow) and Guy (Colin Hovde, who is also the Producing Artistic Director for Theater Alliance). Time has passed, but for Fiona and Guy, the daily trauma of grief and guilt continues to impose on their lives.
All three actors are convincing and vulnerable, especially Kerri Rambow, who, once she finds her footing, approaches the sublime in her depiction of a tortured mother. But the really surprising thing is that peppered amongst the naturalistic moments are gems of lyricism and startling magical realism that elevate in a word from a good play to a great one.
The line between the real and the imaginary, and between the past and the present, is blurred in Yee’s play. Thus, Robert Bowen Smith plays both the seven year-old Tristan, and the much older (and mostly incompetent) detective who has been “on the case.” In a bizarre early moment that showcases the play’s tendency towards the absurd, Bowen Smith also plays Tristan’s kidnapper – or at least, that’s how he introduces himself to Fiona in the grocery store while cheerfully handing her a cantaloupe.
Likewise, Fiona occasionally handles a glass jar that, when opened, lets loose a Pandora’s box whoosh of hellish sound. When she gets fed up with her husband’s cursing, she literally asks him to hand her his curse words – which he does, neatly typed on strips of paper – and she righteously seals them up in the jar. This sort of leisurely swing from the natural into the absurd and back again is the biggest hallmark of in a word, and Director Matt Bassett deftly sews these awkward shifts together.
Wordplay and conflicting memories contribute to the ambiguity of the play. A “leave of absence” becomes a “leaf of absence,” which in turn echoes the symbolism of an almost forgotten tree that plays an important role in Tristan’s life. Dead leaves are also scattered around the set, a beautiful expressionistic affair designed by Betsy Zuck, which also happens to feature a prominent tree apparently growing out of the middle of Fiona and Guy’s living room. The disconcerting phrase “brown and sticky” becomes a polysemic refrain that echoes throughout the play.
Chekhovian naturalism this is not. There is a lot of surrealism and double meanings in in a word. But the core of the play is never lost: the anguish of losing a child, and the guilt that comes with not idealizing that child. As more and more information unfolds about the actual circumstances of Tristan’s life and disappearance, the drama becomes ever more gripping.
The only thing more sensitive than a child’s death is a child’s disappearance. In a word navigates the ins and outs of a child’s disappearance with much the same dexterity as David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize winning Rabbit Hole examines a child’s death. But unlike the death of a child, a disappearance is made up of shades of gray. What happened? Who was watching? Does this make you a bad parent? That is why the theatrical devices in in a word are so appropriate to its story. And it makes for some fine stage drama as well.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.