This review of Lauren Yee's In A Word at The Cherry Lane Theatre was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
In A Word
Written by Lauren Yee
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
The Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street
New York, New York 10014
In A Word delivered a thorough introspective of what it can be like to work with and raise difficult children. The play showcases a child seen as adorable in one moment and then troublesome in another. The juxtaposition of this child's different phases left me wondering whether I felt bad for any of the characters at all. At first, I empathized with the parents who had lost their little boy. The situation seemed so heartbreaking. A child had gone missing and his two loving parents were unable to move on, but as the sequences of the play revealed a clearer picture of the circumstances of the household, I felt like the audience was challenged. We were confronted with the question of whether the value of the loss and the parent's remorse changed with the knowledge that the child was mentally handicapped.
The play began in the living room of the Hamlet family. The husband, Guy, steps in to find the wife, Fiona, searching through boxes. It's the second anniversary of the disappearance of their adopted little boy, Tristan, and as Fiona frantically ransacks the apartment looking for evidence of their child, Guy tries to get her to go out for dinner for the first time since the tragic incident two years ago. Jose Joaquin Perez's performance as Guy was particularly patient and respectable alongside a clever Laura Ramadei. Perez brought a lot of emotion to his part as he made impassioned appeals to his wife. It makes sense right off the bat that he wants her to move on from their lost child, but she has a hard time letting go. He is concerned for her, but he can't understand why she has been so listless these past two years. He tells her, "This has to stop" and in almost the same breath, reminds her, "Was there something that you wanted to tell me?"
These appeals launch a series of flashbacks that became the main substance of the play. About every 3-5 minutes, the couple would say some lines of dialogue that would cue a flashback sequence and an extremely talented Justin Mark, who played a myriad of roles including the role of Tristan, joined the couple on stage. His comedic timing was impeccable. As a detective, Justin mockingly plays with a cantaloupe from Fiona who thought she had met the kidnapper at the grocery store. She has some trouble when she first sees Justin Mark, the detective because the kidnapper and Tristan were also played by Justin Mark. He says, "I just have one of those faces." It is revealed later that Fiona never saw the kidnapper on the day of Tristan's disappearance, but she is clearly hung up on the loss of her child. She not only hallucinates meetings with the supposed kidnapper, but she also paints a glossy picture over the time that she was living with Tristan. Fiona tells the newspapers that she "loved him" and that she "misses him very much," but Guy tells the audience, "funny, I never remember hearing those words (when Tristan was around)."
One of Fiona's favorite lines to young Tristan is "take care of your things or you're going to lose them." Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like Fiona took her own advice. As Guy brings up, Tristan was a much more difficult child than Fiona would let the media know. She likes to tell how great Tristan was, but in reality, he was "difficult." That's what Guy remembers hearing. At school, Tristan was a nuisance, and Fiona had to take him into her own class to keep him from going into special education. It is actually unclear as to why she does this considering that Tristan's behavior is revealed to actually be pretty horrible. He has trouble controlling is bowels. He has trouble learning. He can't make friends. His own father recognizes his developmental disabilities and calls him at one time "retarded." Fiona tries to avoid this word, but she can't seem to come to grips with the reality of Tristan's situation. After a particularly traumatic "picture day," the school gives her a leave of absence and she loses Tristan in the parking lot of a gas station when she stepped in to grab a candy bar. She finally reveals this to her husband, Guy, who reminds her that "even if we can't get justice, we can get better."
At the beginning of the play, I felt remorseful, but when I learned more about how Fiona handled her son's situation and education, I felt a lot less empathetic towards her and unfortunately, her child. It seems to me like she wanted to remain in denial rather than make tangible efforts to help Tristan get better, more helpful attention. That being said, I also wonder if I'd still feel as badly for the missing child as I did at the start if I knew then that he had these difficulties. I definitely feel bad for the husband and father, Guy, who has stayed patiently by his wife's side for these two years, but there is an element of "you reap what you sew" to the whole play. In A Word will keep you entertained for sure, but it may also leave you scratching your head at times at the behavior of the two parents. It's well-written, fluid, and makes you think. If you're looking for that, get tickets at www.CherryLaneTheatre.org or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111.