Trevor Bates, Terrell Wheeler and Summer Dawn Wallace in In a Word.

At first blush, the notion that there could be anything funny in a play that develops around the absence of a lost child seems absurd. And indeed, absurd is what Lauren Yee’s play, In A Word, now onstage at Urbanite Theatre, often becomes, but intentionally so. Yee threads the line between some surprising comedy and some not-so-surprising grief and guilt in her three-actor piece, directed by Erin Kraft, with unusual style.

The missing child here is the 7-year-old Tristan (played by adult Trevor Bates with sometimes heartbreaking believability), who disappeared two years before the play opens. It’s now the second anniversary of that loss, and his adoptive mother, Fiona (Summer Dawn Wallace), is finding it pretty hard to gear up for her birthday dinner with husband Guy (Terrell Wheeler), especially since the detective handling the missing persons case (also played by Bates) is on the verge of calling it closed.

That might seem straightforward enough, but the way Fiona keeps running into random suspects at the grocery store or the gas station marks more offbeat territory. And, as we soon learn, the circumstances of Tristan’s disappearance have not been fully discussed between husband and wife. Fiona’s even unwilling to admit that Tristan was, in Guy’s word, “difficult,” suffering from, at the least, an attention deficit disorder and mood swings that cause him to erupt in the classroom where she teaches, and where he is, temporarily, a student.

Wallace as the struggling mother Fiona

Difficult is just one word that comes into play in Yee’s vision; there is wordplay (as you’d guess from the title) throughout, with the meaning of the words people say, what they actually hear, and what they ultimately mean tumbling around like clothes in a dryer. Fiona even has a jar where she keeps slips of paper with words written on them, like for example the grown-up ones Tristan is not supposed to utter. A sweater, a rock, a leaf, absence/abstinence (for Guy, it’s been a long two years without much intimacy)—these are all words that take on different uses in Yee’s sometimes surrealistic view of the situation.

That makes the play different from what audiences might expect from the subject matter, although the reasons for the difference may not be wholly realized at every turn. Still, Wallace’s Fiona drives the action as she faces up to what took place two years before and what it means for going forward, and she maneuvers the sometimes swift changes of mood with emotional depth. Wheeler as her husband is not given so much to work with; it’s harder to relate to his reactions or coping mechanisms.

But in a tight 80 minutes, In A Word does deliver an original take on a family drama. It continues at Urbanite through April 14; for tickets call 321-1397 or go to urbanitetheatre.com.

 

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