Riddles — the concept is as old as Western thought itself. Indeed, the ancient story of Oedipus Rex and the riddle of the sphynx suggests that the ability to solve a riddle might possibly be our salvation. And then the next “chapter” of that story proceeds to prove decisively that it cannot.
Lauren Yee’s In a Word, produced by Bulldog Ensemble Theater in the performance space of The Fruit [Durham Fruit & Produce Co.), opens with a riddle: “What’s brown and sticky?” In fact, this is a recurring riddle; and the text offers a plethora of answers, some horribly silly, some cute, and some downright disgusting. But can we be saved by finding the answer to a riddle?
Like the Oedipus story, In a Word focuses on a mother-son relationship. Here, however, the story is about a mother who has lost her seven-year-old son and is trying desperately to cope with her grief and her guilt.
We arrive on the scene two years after-the-fact and spend 80 minutes on a roller-coaster ride through her nonlinear labyrinth of memories and mind-numbing experiences. Curiously, everything is connected not only by circumstance but also by words. (Watch for successions of words such as stick — tree — leaf — leave. And see where that “leaves” us (Sorry about that!).
Watch also for variations-on-a-theme as the same words and similar are repeated in differing contexts and by different characters. In addition, pay attention as new words are substituted for old. Can anybody ever find answers “in a word”?)
Amber Wood, as Fiona (the mother), cycles through moments of hope and despair as she relives experiences of the past two years, including encounters with Tristan (her missing son), with a suspected kidnapper (the sixth in a series, we are told), and with the principal of the school that forced a leave-(leaf)-of-absence on her. Nothing brings her any closer to solving the over-lying riddles: What happened? Who did it? Will we ever find him? How do I cope? What happens next? Seemingly effortlessly, Wood pulls us in to feel these experiences along with her.
Guy (Fiona’s husband) is also trying to cope. In this role, Thaddeus Edwards exudes a desperate attempt at optimism, an optimism that fails repeatedly to lift his wife (or himself) from the hellishness of their existence. Edwards’ performance is deftly seasoned with the differences between the brave, “stiff upper-lip” façade that he uses to try to help Fiona cope and the true depths of his own despair.
Through the talents of Matthew Hager, we meet nine other characters. Portraying Tristan, Hager shows that he is clearly familiar with kids — he captures the postures, the voices, and the attitudes. He is equally authentic as kidnapper, principal, and (defective) detective. And he is quite entertaining as Guy’s all-wise drinking-buddy/counselor Andy, the oft-mentioned friend who “knows someone who ….”
Director Jules Odendahl-James has paced this piece expertly, timing the “descents” and the attempted “ascents” with precision. As she “jumps” us from vignette to vignette in Fiona’s mind, we are never bereft of clues — we always have just enough information to intuit where we have been, where we are, and where we are headed.
Set designer Sonya Drum has created a somewhat minimalist set that includes the couple’s living room that is every bit as cluttered and disheveled as Sonya’s mind. The script includes the exhortation “Take care of your things.” The parallel between the living room and the mind affords a scene in which the loss and/or theft of physical “things” stands as a metaphor for a similar loss and/or theft of mental and emotional “things.” Drum’s set has also given us the seeds for the scene for “school pictures,” the interior of a car, a produce section at a grocery store, a detective’s office, and numerous other locations. Watch for a series of opening of jars that are kept just outside the main playing area. Have we been invited into the various compart-mental-ized recesses of Sonia’s mind?
Sound (Christa Giammattei), lighting (Jenni Mann Becker), and costumes (Jane Caradale) combine to enhance this experience. The production also makes good use of projections and camera-flashes.
In addition to the riddles, watch for clichés and variations thereupon. Note the importance of the number two — Tristan was two years old when the couple adopted him; Fiona is his second mother; he was in the second grade when he disappeared; he has been missing for two years ….
Does the number two suggest second chances? Or is that an attempt (on our part) to discern answers “in a word?”
Interesting lines in the script:
“This is my story. Get your own story and stop butting into mine.”
“You can put it another way, but you can’t put it away.”
“I am older than I have ever been.” (Followed by a slight variation “in a word.”)
From the Department of Picky-Picky: “Andy” was drinking from an empty beer bottle. Filling it half-full of liquid would have been a nice touch.
A final word: we would never have expected that a play about the loss of a child would afford so many opportunities for laughter — perhaps, this is the very definition of “black comedy.” Bulldog Ensemble Theater has scored another hit.
SECOND OPINION: March 27th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Katy Koop (who awarded the show 4.5 of 5 stars): https://indyweek.com/culture/stage/a-compartmentalized-world-of-memory-and-grief/ and March 21st mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/bulldog-ensemble-theater-presents-in-word/; and March 26th Cary, NC RDU on Stage review by Kim Jackson: https://rduonstage.com/2019/03/26/review-bulldog-theaters-in-a-word-is-smart-without-being-too-sentimental/.
The Bulldog Ensemble Theater presents IN A WORD at 8 p.m. April 5 and 6 and 2 p.m. April 7 at The Fruit (Durham Fruit & Produce Co.), 305 S. Dillard St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $20 ($10 Under 35 and $18 seniors 65+).
BOX OFFICE: https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=1.
In a Word (2015 San Francisco and 2017 New York City dark comedy): https://laurenyee.com/plays/#in%20a%20word (official web page), https://www.samuelfrench.com/p/59187/in-a-word (Samuel French, Inc.), and https://newplayexchange.org/plays/1164/word (New Play Exchange®).
Lauren Yee (San Francisco-born New York City playwright and screenwriter): https://laurenyee.com/ (official website), https://newdramatists.org/lauren-yee (New Dramatists bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/43164 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm5912312/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/lauren.d.yee (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/laurendyee (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Yee (Wikipedia).
Jules Odendahl-James (director and Duke Theater Studies resident dramaturg and a visiting lecturer): http://julesodendahljames.com/ (official website), https://theaterstudies.duke.edu/people/jules-odendahl-james (Duke Theater Studies bio), https://www.facebook.com/jules.odendahljames (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/naturalreadhead (Twitter page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.