By Lauren Yee
Directed by Jess McLeod
Produced by Strawdog Theatre Company, Chicago
Losing a Child Can Be Complicated
The delicate awkwardness of grief and its potentially socially unacceptable forms are naturally alluring to many playwrights. For maximum confluence of guilt and loss, it is best to have parents mourning a child, and imbue at least one party with cringe-inducing flaws. So it was with Northlight’s Mothers and Sons and Route 66’s No Wake, and now, as part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, Lauren Yee offers her own take on the subject. In a Word, under the direction of Jess McLeod at Strawdog Theatre, is frank and brutal during its brief eighty minutes. But with Yee’s imagination and sense of humor, it also contains several surprises, and manages to be emotionally honest without being either hackneyed or irreverent.
Guy (John Ferrick) comes home to his wife, Fiona (Mary Winn Heider) one day, hoping to take her out to supper. He’s in a talkative mood, but she’s hiding something, and he soon figures out what. She’s been talking to the media again about her hope of locating their son, Tristan (Gabriel Franken, who also plays every other part), who disappeared two years ago at the age of six. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it makes Fiona sound crazy. A detective has made clear many times that it is extraordinarily unlikely that Tristan is still alive. But Fiona continues to hallucinate that she sees the kidnapper, and offers the detective useless evidence of these imaginary encounters. She also believes that the killer (she sometimes slips up and calls him that) is lurking around the house, and has visions associated with the last time she saw her son, on school picture day at the elementary school where she used to work as a teacher.
The other problem with her attitude is that it’s a lie. Guy tells us candidly fairly early on that Fiona’s descriptions of Tristan as an angelic child were not her opinion of him when he was alive. Tristan was adopted, and Guy and Fiona hadn’t known they were agreeing to raise a child with ADHD. Guy treated Tristan with genial negligence. Again and again, through flashbacks, we see the boy absorb some highly undesirable behavior from his father and his friends, which Guy never showed much concern over. We see that Fiona got along with Tristan better, at times, but also lashed out at him when he misbehaved or disappointed her. And Tristan caused a whole lot of embarrassment and disappointment. Fiona’s delusions are driven mainly by guilt, and while Guy pities her and is horrified by what happened, he feels it is high time they moved on.
How much we can identify with them is a testament to the skill of the actors. Crucially, Yee included a scene of Fiona being a pretty good mom to Tristan, which Heider and Franken perform with touching simplicity. That makes it a lot easier to swallow the way she treats him later. So, too, does having Tristan be played by an adult. This is highly risky, and the drawbacks are on full display, but there’s something especially distasteful about a full-grown man throwing a tantrum that allows us to empathize with his parents. Franken is also able to transform quickly and convincingly multiple times in short order into several other characters, heightening the hallucinatory effect. Ferrick makes his character, too, come across as more immature than malicious. Guy accidently took on more than he was capable of, didn’t rise to the challenge, and now he wants the whole episode to be over. It’s not admirable, but it’s understandable.
For such a small chamber play, McLeod has given it a complex staging. Actors appear and vanish unexpectedly, props (by Jamie Karas) seem to melt or acquire magical qualities under John Kelly’s lights in accordance with Fiona’s suggestions, and Sam Hubbard designed a few intense fights. Yee’s dream-like language goes a little overboard at times (Fiona gets put on a “leaf of absence” from work, accompanied by a visual example), but she anchors it with vivid, and often harrowing descriptions. In fact, it is the contrast between Fiona’s expressionistic lies about her son and the harshness with which she describes his disappearance that make the end of the play so effective. The play’s text is enough for us to smell Tristan. Yee has shown herself to be an interesting writer, and it’s heartening to see the National New Play Development assisting her development. In a Word’s subject matter is grim, but the delivery is palatable, and it provides a lot to think about.
Reviewed February 15, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see In a Word’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 N Broadway St, Chicago. Tickets are $28; to order, call 866-811-4111 or visit Strawdog.org. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 4:00 pm through March 19 (industry night Mon, Feb 22 at 8:00 pm, fully accessible performance is March 3). Running time is eighty minutes with no intermission.