By Kim Jackson
How long does it take to lose a child?
While the Bulldog Ensemble Theater production of Lauren Yee’s in a word grapples with the grief and guilt associated with losing a child, the question of how to live in that space of the missing fuels the dramatic tension. How do you communicate when words contain both memories and varied meanings?
On the second year anniversary of the disappearance of their young son, Fiona and Guy are connected by his loss but disconnected from each other. In the opening scene, Fiona parcels out short, clipped responses to her husband’s attempts at communication, limiting her words as if she is afraid she’ll violate some quota. Guy, in turn, treads carefully, hesitating with his words, which seem to agitate rather than soothe. Affection seems to have vanished from this marriage before their son Tristan did.
And what happened to seven-year-old Tristan on that fateful school picture day? Fiona’s obsession with the loss now consumes her, just as mothering Tristan once did. She expiates her guilt by rehashing the events that led to that fateful day, as well as dwelling on the memories of her son. Guy wants to move on, find a new normal, but Fiona remains fixated on the memories of the past, unable to even speculate on a future without her child. The loss of Tristan underscores and exacerbates her feelings of inadequacies as a mother.
Fiona is just as bottled up emotionally as the words and memories she keeps in mason jars are, a preserve of shoulds and shouldn’ts. Amber Wood delivers a tightly wrought performance of a woman who has a tenuous grip on reality. She deftly maneuvers between flashbacks and the present with subtle nuanced moments that convey all the tension inherent in raising a difficult child. Her performance is riveting. She remains on stage for the full 80 minutes of the play, and her fierce pain consumes and engulfs the audience just as it does her.
As Guy, Thaddaeus Edwards conveys the range of frustration of a seemingly detached father and husband. His Guy is conflicted between mourning the absence of his son and wanting to move on. He retreats emotionally from Fiona but can’t untangle himself from their codependent relationship. And although he desperately craves to retreat to a time before Tristan arrived in their lives, he is in many ways emotionally stunted.
But it is the multi-role performance of Matthew Hager that pulls the thread that unravels the story. He morphs seamlessly from playing a mischievous and problematic young Tristan to becoming an insensitive oafish detective to playing Guy’s loutish friend, Andy. In the role as the possible, or maybe imagined, kidnapper, he embodies and reveals Fiona’s pain and guilt. He also plays the well-meaning school principal who pushes Fiona to accept the uncomfortable reality that her son is “difficult,” and needs intervention. Hager’s versatility as a multi-faceted performer is mesmerizing and advances the plot effortlessly.
Jules Odendahl-James directs this play with unfailing precision and timing. She allows the actors to dive deep into the recesses of their characters without hindrance. The jumps in time are neither jarring or confusing but flow together smoothly, gathering and building up to a relentless climax.
The compartmentalized set by Sonya Drum mirrors the way Fiona has compacted her memories. Lighting by Jenni Mann Becker and sound by Christa Giammattei also compliment the production, signaling and highlighting the shifts in time.
Ultimately, Yee’s play revolves around how words are used, carefully chosen, manipulated, and often misunderstood. Seemingly innocuous words and phrases uttered by one character become more meaningful when spoken by another. A “leave of absence” transforms into a “leaf” and then evolves again into the abstinence that permeates the atmosphere. Phrases are repeated and echoed, a complicated dance of dialogue that requires a nimble dexterity that is well executed by this trio. They plumb the full extent of the wordplay and even the dark humor that resides in the midst of tragedy. It is a heartbreaking story, yes, but definitely not sentimental. The journey forward for this couple will continue to be difficult.
The Bulldog Ensemble Theater production of In a Word runs through April 7th at Durham Fruit and Produce Co. For more information visit: https://www.bulldogdurham.org/.