Chicago Theater Review: IN A WORD (Strawdog)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 16, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Only 75 minutes long, this slice of loss by Lauren Yee–a “rolling world premiere” from the National New Plays Network–charts one mother’s tailspin after the sudden subtraction of her 7-year-old son. Darkly poetic and packed with occasionally irritating word play (a “tree of absence” becomes quite literal), twisted logic, free association and repetition for effect, In A Word is never as terse as its title: It spins hard feelings in all directions. Jess McLeod’s staging for Strawdog Theatre Company delivers three solidly convincing performances, reflecting a complex crisis from all sides.

Gabe Franken and John Ferrick in IN A WORD at Strawdog.

The details behind this disappearance and the two years that follow matter less than the parents’ anguished aftermath of regret, recriminations, and, oddly, relief. Relief because, manic with ADHD, Tristan, adopted (for whatever lesser love that implies), was never less than a problem child. “We got our son and lost ourselves,” observes the rueful father (John Ferrick). Was he kidnapped, misplaced, abandoned? This one-act refuses easy closure.

Gabe Franken and John Ferrick in IN A WORD.

As Fiona Hamlin, the mother whose brain breaks with her heart, Mary Winn Heider practically patents survivor guilt masquerading as heartbreak. It only took three minutes for the shit-smeared lad to disappear from her van into the woods. Now she’s obsessed with finding her boy–but, in the dark night of her soul, not entirely and securely sure that she really wants to. If ambivalence can amount to agony, these conflicted parents are on a very different rack from the conventional panic and mourning when a loved one gets lost.

Gabe Franken and Mary Winn Heider

Gabriel Franken plays hyper Tristan, as well as an unhelpful and equally frustrated detective, Fiona’s patient principal at the school, the father’s dismissive buddy, and other roles that flesh out the ongoing emergency. His bratty boy helps to recreate the “picture day” when Tristan was photographed for the school yearbook. The snapshot would become much less innocent on a wanted poster.

Mary Winn Heider and John Ferrick in IN A WORD at Strawdog.

To her credit Lauren Yee packs every plausible reaction, emotional and practical, into Tristan’s vanishing—memory mongering, denial, resignation, remorse. The three actors are totally on top of their trauma, and their characters’ pain is very much in the public domain. Though more a triumph in the acting than the writing, In A Word is a new play that hits home.

Mary Winn Heider and John Ferrick in IN A WORD.

photos by Tom McGrath of TCMCGPhotography

Mary Winn Heider, John Ferrick and Gabe Franken in IN A WORD.

In a Word
Strawdog Theatre Company
3829 N. Broadway St
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 4
ends on March 19, 2016
for tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit Strawdog

for info on more Chicago Theater, visit Theatre in Chicago

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