(PHOTO COURTESY: DOUG Catiller)
Written by Scotty Keister
Deflection and reflection. In Lauren Yee’s play, In a Word, now running at Chance Theater, words matter. The behavior of its characters is reflected in how they use words. Many times the same words are used over and over again but adopt different meanings with each use, as the characters choose to use the words to deflect or reflect the truth.
Fiona, played with a fidgety and intense emotional presence by Amanda Zarr, is the mother of adopted son Tristan, a young child who vanished two years earlier while in her care. Fiona is still coping with the grief and guilt, and her various coping mechanisms detail much of the play. The mechanisms involve a bewildering use of words that have deep symbolic meaning for her. We eventually see that by manipulating the meanings of words Fiona has come to rewrite her own responsibility in the disappearance and shift the blame onto her husband, Guy, played with a pained exasperation by Chance Dean. He wasn’t there when he was needed; he was out of town on business; he was an absent father. Guy is struggling to support Fiona’s emotional turmoil while dealing with his own grief and self-doubt. The third presence in the piece is played by James McHale, who actually embodies a number of characters: Tristan himself, the police detective who has given up on the search, a friend of Guy’s, and a local weirdo. It’s an impressive performance.
The play jumps around in time and reality without warning. We begin in the present, jump backwards at the drop of a particular word which stimulates new and revised memories, then lurch forward again. Sometimes the memories are real, sometimes imagined. For example, we see the day of Tristan’s disappearance, picture day at school, as narrated by Fiona. But is it reality? Fiona is given a leave of absence to cope with her grief— but maybe it’s leave, as in the leaves on a tree, at first a tiny tree which becomes an immense tree actually growing in her yard and invading her home. The home itself, as designed by Christopher Scott Murillo, is composed of many different sized cardboard boxes, stacked improbably from floor to ceiling on which a number of mason jars precariously reside. We are looking at the very reflection of Fiona’s mind where she has stored and compartmentalized the past two years, safely tucked away beyond examination. A singular cardboard box containing the only remaining photos of Tristan, the only link to a verifiable reality, has coincidentally vanished.
The play moves in scenes that follow no logical order of storytelling, leaving little clues along the way as to the truth of what really happened. The audience is urged to pay attention to every word because all is not how it seems at first. Words like sweater, rock, leaves, under your nose, and tree are repeated and develop new associations with each usage as the characters reveal more about themselves. It’s a tricky piece, a puzzle of wordplay that pays off with an unexpected conclusion.
All three actors hold up the work admirably. With nothing to go on but dialog and the value with which each word is infused, the performances are vital to the play’s success. Zarr, in a remarkable feat of acting, has a moment towards the end—Fiona is narrating a flashback at a gas station—when she snaps back and forth from memory to reality so quickly that it’s startling. Moments like this throughout the play elevate each scene.
The direction by Jocelyn A. Brown keeps the narrative on point and tightly focused. Lighting by Lily Bartenstein and sound design by Darryl B. Hovis contribute subtle touches that enhance the eerie mood shifts. The play is not, as it might sound, a funerary dirge. There are laughs scattered throughout. The tone, though generally dark, is peppered with witty wordplay and honest glimpses of human foibles we can’t help but chuckle at.
Imaginative, honest and insightful, In a Word is an entirely unique, challenging, and ultimately highly rewarding piece of theater running until October 8th on the Fryda-Mar Stage at the Chance.