The words we use every day serve to conceal as much as they reveal. This is especially true for those automatic expressions continually trotted out that form the bulk of most conversations.
Of course, this is nothing new to many playwrights, including Pinter and Mamet, who have frolicked in the misunderstandings and absurdities created by our language. So it is for Lauren Yee, the young woman who has written in a word in a way that slowly peels away the comforting blandness of verbal intercourse to expose some very raw nerve endings.
Thanks to the evocative direction of Beth Wood, a fascinating set designed by Wood and Benjamin Gantose, and a couple outstanding performances, this production continually absorbs your attention. While it suffers on occasion from youthful pretension (staring with the lower-case title), Yee dissects words that are wrapped around a profoundly disturbing event.
In this National New Play Network "Rolling World Premiere," it seems that Fiona and Guy Hamlin's son, 7-year-old Tristan, has been missing for two years. And on this day, which is Fiona's birthday and the anniversary of Tristan's disappearance, she is battling with her memories as she tries to find a way forward.
We travel with her as she flashes on many moments from the past 24 months, and even further back. As she does, the facts slowly rise out of the jumble of words. Tristan was a difficult child, perhaps suffering from ADHD or autism, and the police detective investigating his disappearance is a jerk. Back at home Fiona, who was also Tristan's second-grade teacher, is having a hard time reassembling her relationship with Guy.
Underscoring all this is Yee's precise and sometimes mildly infuriating repetition of common figures of speech that morph into new shapes and swirl around themselves like a verbal Penrose staircase. At one point, Fiona reflects on the absent Tristan, "He's coming home soon and I don't want to miss him, even if I do." And when it appears she can't teach anymore, she is given a leave of absence that is misheard by others as a "leaf" of absence and then grows into a "tree of absence."
The concept of absence is omnipresent, and the branches of that tree grow and expand to embrace the entire play, both metaphorically and literally. An effective staging device is the welter of glass jars that occupy a large bookcase and circle the round platform that defines the family's living room. Using these jars, Fiona and Guy compartmentalize their lives: some jars contain objects or words written on scraps of paper, and some contain nothing but the whispering of disembodied voices.
If this sounds like some weird sort of performance art, you'd be right up to a point. But Yee and director Wood know what they're about, so just when you think the play is about to spiral off into la la land, you're jerked back into the very real tragedy at hand.
In the pivotal role of Fiona, Liz Conway is exceptional. Her frustration dealing with her son is palpable, as is her gradual deterioration as the weeks and years pass by: "You just have to take it day by day — after day...after day...after day." And her quiet, climactic scene with a Kit Kat bar is, given its context, perhaps the most trenchant human interaction with chocolate since Willy Wonka boffed the Swiss Miss on the Cocoa Cruiser ride at Hershey Park.
As Guy, Mark Rabant never succeeds in wrapping his arms around this man who is caught between a desire to support his wife and a compulsion to move on with his life. While he has moments that register, he often acts the emotion at hand instead of crafting a dimensional character and letting the emotion bubble up, raw and unexpected, from that persona.
All the other roles, including that of Tristan's real (or imagined ) kidnapper, are played by Matt O' Shea with distinct clarity. But his most significant contribution is portraying Tristan, who can swing from adorably boyish to agonizingly troubled in a nanosecond. And O'Shea manages it smoothly, showing the extremity of the boy's condition without being showy or mawkish.
The production is aided immeasurably by Gantose's lighting, which glows subtly at times and then glares insinuatingly right through the back panel of the plastic bookcase and the windows haphazardly covered in newspapers. And the music and sound effects provided by composer and sound designer Sam Fisher subtly ease us into the mind of Fiona as she explores the recollections that plague her.
Yes, some of Yee's wordplay feels excessive and indulgent, especially toward the end when less might have certainly been more. Still, this is a complex and arresting journey through the words that we employ to clumsily deal with events that are clearly unspeakable.
In a Word: Through May 2 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.