Just last week, a Lifehacker tip started making the rounds online: Pull out your phone and take a picture of your stove before leaving on vacation and save yourself the unnecessary worry of your house burning down while you’re gone. It’s an ingenious counter, one meant to combat the fear, the incapacitating death grip of nagging uncertainty that most of us have experienced at some point in time.
But while the thought of losing your home and all your worldly possessions is certainly awful, what happens if you actually lose something even more precious, something that can never be replaced, like your child? What if that incapacitating death grip grabs hold of your mind, the answer to the most important question you’ll ever receive eluding you – and there’s no Lifehacker tip to help you remember?
That’s the conflict at the center of Lauren Yee’s In a Word, directed by Troy Scheid at Mildred’s Umbrella, a fascinating exploration of one woman’s grief, and guilt, after her son goes missing.
It’s been two years since Guy and Fiona’s son, Tristan, disappeared on Fiona’s birthday. When In a Word opens, Guy is arriving home to take Fiona out to dinner, for the first time since Tristan’s disappearance, but he finds that Fiona’s not ready; she’s tearing apart the living room in her bathrobe, still looking for answers to the same questions that have tormented her since the day she walked away from Tristan, left him in the backseat of her car at a gas station, and returned to find nothing.
If you can’t guess by the title, Yee’s work is a word play. She plays with simple words and our everyday, taken-for-granted turns of phrase to unpack the seemingly unspeakable feelings around tragedy. She’s overall successful, though for a relatively short play – In a Word clocks in at about 75 minutes – there are still moments of bloated, overwritten self-indulgence, times when the wordplay is off-putting and distant. But those moments are brief. It’s hardly a chore to stick with the show, and everything pays off in the end – the last 15 or so minutes probably some of the best work we’ll see on a Houston stage this year.
Yee’s work is a precision operation, and your attention matters, because this show requires you to keep up, to catch the multiple meanings in a single word or phrase. (And those who do will be rewarded.) Her writing is rhythmic and lyrical in turns, and at moments an almost vaudeville-like rapport is established.
Like a tree, the motif Yee returns to again and again, the words and phrases in her play sprout and branch out, revealing the truth of Tristan’s disappearance in fits and starts, and the depths of Fiona’s guilt, in bits and pieces, a loaded word like “justice” becoming “just us” and, finally, “just me.”
Yee’s writing puts the actors in a tough position; they must leave enough room for Yee’s clever use of language to breathe, but also retain a sense of relatable naturalism. Without it, the show would lose its emotional punch. But luckily, Yee’s words are in capable hands. The three actors in this production all exhibit a deftness that’s to be commended, starting with Miranda Herbert as Fiona.
Admittedly, Herbert took some time to settle into her role, to warm up to the material, but by the play’s most climactic scene, when it needed her the most, she was ready, her anguish palpable throughout the room, her pain raw and gutting. As Guy, Alex Garza is the rock of this production, the stability that keeps it balanced. Like Fiona, Guy is revealed to be at his wit’s end as well, though for him it’s with Fiona. He’s aloof at times, but still a sympathetic character.
Rhett Martinez wears many hats – their seven-year-old child Tristan; the police detective sort of still on the case; Guy’s best friend; and even Tristan’s maybe kidnapper, who Fiona encounters at the supermarket – and he does so with impressive dexterity, at times morphing from one character to another in a millisecond.
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As director, Scheid steers this ship with skill, with everyone – cast and crew – playing his or her part.
Shelby Blocker, responsible for set and prop design, created a seemingly simple living room set that reflects Fiona’s frazzled mind and contains symbols of her guilt and fractured marriage – newspapers, full pages and scraps adorn the wall and sit in piles on the floor; a weathered cardboard box, frayed at the edges but filled with potential clues and hints; an open purse on the floor; stray toys; more and more jars; and empty picture frames hanging from the ceiling. Lindsay Burns’s costumes complete the look well.
Sound design, by Andy McWilliams, and light design, by Greg Starbird, were overall effective. Two of the most powerful moments involve a lighting and projection effect to dramatize Picture Day. But, as Fiona’s guilt manifests, blurring the line between past and present, real and imaginary, the transitions between the two, often denoted by sound and lighting cues, lacked the crisp, sharp quality they required, leaving some lines more than blurred, some moments flirting dangerously with confusion.
In a Word continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and August 7; and 3 p.m. August 7 through August 12 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. For information, call 832-463-0409 or visit mildredsumbrella.com. $15 to $25.