By Lauren Yee; Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
Produced by Lesser America
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 7.8.17
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 6.27.17
Laura Ramadei, Justin Mark, and Jose Joaquin Perez in In A Word. Photo by Hunter Canning.
BOTTOM LINE: An immensely clever, well-written work that explores grief and memory, creating a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience.
Grief, guilt, and memory are at the forefront of Lesser America's newest production, In a Word, a show which lives up to the up-and-coming theatre company's reputation for presenting unique stories. The play opens with Fiona (Laura Ramadei) sitting alone, fixated on her grief for her missing son, Tristan (Justin Mark). She sits with his belongings, still not recovered from her trauma, even two years later. Her husband Guy (Jose Joaquin Perez) enters the room and tries to convince Fiona to go out to dinner. He offers her a cupcake, and Fiona wonders what it's for, having completely forgotten that today is her birthday; time seems to have stood still since the day her son vanished. She tells Guy of a crazed stranger (also played by Justin Mark, who takes on multiple roles) who approached her earlier that day in the grocery store, claiming to have kidnapped Tristan and leaving her with a grapefruit. As Fiona tells Guy the story, the man enters the room with them and Fiona examines him as she describes him to her husband, blurring memory into the present, an impressive moment that recurs throughout the play.
The detective (Mark again) tells her that two years is the end of the line, and the case is going to be closed soon. Fiona feels that she has no hope left. The play now begins to jump backward and forward, no longer following a linear time line. Scenes are revisited and retold, making a strong statement about the nature of memory and the lies we tell ourselves. We soon learn that Tristan was not the couple's biological child; they were unable to have children and a friend told them about a young woman with a two-year-old son that she was unable to take care of. Fiona and Guy decide not to tell Tristan, who was seven when he went missing, the truth about his biological mother. This confuses Tristan, who remembers a house with a tree and asks his mother when they lived at a different house, wondering if he can trust his own memory. As he grows up, he becomes increasingly difficult to take care of and creates disturbances in school. As Fiona is also a teacher at the school, she places him in her class where she can keep an eye on him. While the play seems to be careening towards a resolution, perhaps to finding Tristan, we instead see the truth about the circumstances of his disappearance and why Fiona places so much blame on herself.
In A Word is an immensely clever play from start to finish. Lauren Yee's intelligent script is matched by the production's staging (from director Tyne Rafaeli and set and lighting designer Oona Curley) as scenes blur together, characters enter through the refrigerator, and even the bookcase becomes a door. Lines of dialogue signal significant memories that will be revisited later, such as the phrase "brown and sticky" and the constant references to trees. Yee's script calls for the same actor to play both the detective and the missing son, and by doing so allows for some very effective dramatic moments.
The actors help to pull off a script that requires a lot of skill as time and characters shift constantly and quickly. Laura Ramadei shows nuanced emotion as a grieving mother, and despite Fiona's not always making the most admirable choices, or showing the greatest kindness, still manages to solicit empathy. Justin Mark shows great versatility in his five different roles. Jose Joaquin Perez is also compelling as a man trying to find happiness and new life in the face of a deeply damaged marriage and a lost child. In the end, the show is about how we piece together the mistakes and pains that put us where we are now. In A Word is the sort of innovative, well-written play that one hopes to find in Off Broadway theatre, so see it before it closes in July.
(In A Word plays at the Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street, through July 8, 2017. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8:30 and Saturdays at 3:30 and 8:30. Tickets are $26 and are available at lesseramerica.com or by calling 866--811-4111.)
In A Word is by Lauren Yee. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli. Choreography is by Name. Set Design and Lighting Design is by Oona Curley. Sound Design is by Stowe Nelson. Stage Manager is Jenn Elyse Jacobs.
The cast is Justin Mark, Jose Joaquin Perez, and Laura Ramadei.