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In a Word

Fascinating study of a couple coping with the disappearance of their child while words fail them in telling what happened.

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Justin Mark and Laura Ramadei in a scene from Lauren Yee’s “In a Word” (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

“In a word, he’s gone.” 

Lauren Yee’s In a Word, winner of the 2016 Francesca Primus Prize and a finalist for the ATCA/Steinberg Award, is a powerful drama delineating the journey of a couple Fiona (Laura Ramadei) and Guy (Jose Joaquin Perez), whose adopted son Tristan, age seven, has gone missing. It is the second anniversary of his disappearance and Fiona is reviewing the events of the previous two years. Is it time to let go? Words seem to get in the way or offer alternate possibilities depending on how you express ideas. They have multiple meanings so how can you say exactly what you mean. And did she make any mistakes along the way?

Told mainly in reenacted flashbacks, In a Word plays multiple language games. It also proves the limits of language. Can you really describe exactly what happens at any given moment? And if you misunderstand a word or take it to mean something else the whole meaning changes. After two years, Guy wants to know what Fiona didn’t tell him on the day Tristan disappeared. Fiona brings evidence to the detective but fails to be exact in her suspicions. Tristan misunderstands things he is not meant to hear and proceeds on his own explanations.

And memory plays funny tricks: Fiona remembers Tristan as an angelic child, but according to Guy’s recollections he was a difficult child beset with ADHD. According to Fiona’s boss and Tristan’s principal, he needed special education classes as he was too disruptive in regular classes. As we see him, Tristan is a precocious child, overhearing adult conversations and drawing his own conclusions, asking pointed questions, some of which he is too young to hear the answers, others drawn from his mistaken conclusions, and still others based on memories he has from before he was adopted. For a child, language continually fails him with its many meanings for the same word or words he does not yet know.

Laura Ramadei, Justin Mark and Jose Joaquin Perez in a scene from Lauren Yee’s “In a Word” (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

The play’s only flaw is that it covers some of the same material two and three times not always adding enough new information to warrant the repetition. Other times we listen in horror as we realize that the truth was quite different from what we were led to believe. The characters often offer multiple possibilities for the same statement, each time shifting the meaning or the intent. This often gives the play a poetic texture, unlike most plays dealing with realistic situations.

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli in taut fashion, the third actor, Justin Mark, in a tour de force, plays all of the other characters: seven-year-old Tristan, the detective assigned to the case, Fiona’s principal at the school at which she teaches, Guy’s best friend Andy, a man who may or may not be the kidnapper who Fiona keeps meeting at the supermarket, a school photographer on Picture Day, Guy’s client, and a police officer on the day of the kidnapping. Seguing between playing the adult characters and Fiona’s son, Mark demonstrates tremendous range considering that he also has to go back and forth between the roles in each of his appearances.

As Fiona, Ramadei is poignant as a woman over her head in both her home life and her career, trying not to lose her temper or her sanity, but coping with difficult situations. Perez has much less to do as her husband Guy, mainly relegated to the sidelines as he listens to her anecdotes of the past and corrects her faulty accounts. However, he does suggest that Guy is hiding a great deal that he is not telling in his relationship with Fiona.

Justin Mark, Jose Joaquin Perez and Laura Ramadei in a scene from Lauren Yee’s “In a Word” (Photo credit: Hunter Canning)

Oona Curley’s scenic and lighting design cleverly makes use of a unit set that stands in for many locales with its use of a huge hutch with many compartments, sliding screen walls and multiple entrances. In the hands of Andrea Hood, the costumes for the adult characters remain the same but are perfectly convincing for the two years of the story. However, Hood’s costumes for Tristan change periodically due to the turns of the story. Brittany Coyne has performed yeoman service for her many props which have both symbolic and highly charged meaning in the context of the story.

Lauren Yee’s In a Word reveals a unique voice which should become better known in New York when her new play, The Great Leap, premieres at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2018. Not only does In a Word’s twisty nature reveal language as both a way of revealing or clouding the truth, but it also delineates the nature of language as our main method of communication. It never takes just a word to explain anything, but can we ever arrive at the exact truth of an event?

In a Word (through July 8, 2017)

Cherry Lane Theatre & Lesser America (company in residence)

Cherry Lane Studio Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, west of Seventh Avenue So., in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit

Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (992 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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