Friday, June 23, 2017

33 (2017-2018): Review: IN A WORD (seen June 22, 2017)

What must it be like to lose a child, not by the finality of death, but by the uncertain fate of a kidnapping? How long must one wait and suffer before being able to move along with one’s life? Is the pain any less because the child was adopted? Or that the child was so seriously troubled it affected your every waking minute, even losing you your job? And endangering your marriage? Does the coping ever stop?

Justin Mark, Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.

These are some of the questions confronted by Lauren Yee’s tenderly crafted In a Word, being given a quality performance under Tyne Rafaeli’s delicate direction in the intimate Cherry Lane Studio Theatre. This well-acted three-hander, running a little more than an hour, introduces us to Fiona (Laura Ramadei), a grade school teacher, and her husband, Guy (Jose Joaquin Perez); they’re an ordinary young couple, whose seven-year-old, Tristan, appears to have been snatched two years ago after Fiona parked at a gas station and left him alone for three minutes.

Justin Mark, Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
After two years of waiting for the cops to solve the case, Guy wants to declare a moratorium on their grief, at least enough so that Fiona can break free of her obsessing and go out with him for dinner, something to which she’s already agreed. She remains, however, chained to her grief and guilt, precipitating the flashback memories that constitute the main action. These are seamlessly integrated into the generally realistic, present-time structure to examine Fiona’s emotional and mental state. Lines of dialogue with words bearing particular resonance are woven through the script as markers, often serving to trigger recollections that instantly shift us from the present to the past.
Laura Ramadei, Justin Mark. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Sometimes, the recalls are tinged with distortions or exaggerations that invoke mild laughter, which serves as relief to the general grimness. The effect, at times, is to suggest that Fiona’s fixation has driven her to the point of madness. She even imagines different people introducing themselves as the kidnapper in places like the grocery. In the memories, a young actor, the versatile Justin Mark, plays eight roles, among them the detective investigating the kidnapping; Fiona’s principal, Ted; Guy’s buddy, Andy; and, most significantly, Tristan. 
Laura Ramadei, Jose Joaquin Perez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
When we see Tristan, adopted when he was two from an unwed friend of Andy’s, he’s more than a handful; highly intelligent, he’s rude, potty-mouthed, and undisciplined. He’s also unable to bear more than a passing touch from his mother. Yee’s script suggests that he probably has Asperger’s.  Fiona, despite being a second-grade teacher, is reluctant to accept that he’s anything but a hyperactive kid. Ted, though, urges that he be placed in a special ed class taught by a fellow teacher Fiona unreservedly calls a retard, a word Tristan picks up on as well.
Justin Mark, Jose Joaquin, Perez, Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Words, the play indicates, both spoken and unspoken, make a difference; Fiona even keeps a swear jar for every vulgarity someone makes. Misunderstood language--“leave of absence,” for example, through the change of “leave” into “leaf” ultimately becomes “tree of absence”--allows for a distinctive touch of poetry. With so many of the flashbacks suggesting an alternative, even magic reality, it’s no wonder Stowe Nelson’s fine sound design allows the buzzing of improper words to be heard whenever the jar is opened.
Laura Ramadei, Justin Mark, Jose Joaquin Perez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Rafaeli’s production unfolds in a sleek West Elm-like living room designed by Oona Curley with an upstage area marked by a set of translucent glass doors. The actors slide these back and forth in different configurations, altering perceptions of time and feeling. Curley also did the evocative lighting, with one particular moment showing a ghostly Tristan staring through the doors as if just on the cusp of vanishing. The effect is, in a word, haunting.


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC