In a Word


Through Sunday, Apr. 7 

The Fruit, Durham 

Bulldog Ensemble Theater’s production of In a Word, by Lauren Yee, is undoubtedly minimalist: It features just three actors, runs eighty minutes, and uses a realistic set for stark symbolic purposes. Yet the strength of playwright Lauren Yee’s artistic vision—and the powerful, at times tear-jerking, performances of Bulldog Ensemble Theater’s actors—creates a decidedly maximalist experience.

We meet Fiona (Amber Wood) two years after the disappearance of her son, when she finally agrees to go out to eat with her husband, Guy (Thaddaeus Edwards), so they can heal at last. Instead, they pick up their conversation from twenty-four months ago, flowing through memories until they land at the painful truth of that day.

Amid the industrial walls of The Fruit, set designer Sonya Drum manifests a compartmentalized world of grief, like a series of activity stations from Fiona’s elementary school lesson plan. Under Jules Odendahl-James’s direction, the actors flow through it in the round, with gut-wrenching intensity. They take us back to a fraught second-grade picture day in front of a swirling Lifetouch backdrop.

We see the lost child, Tristan, played by the many-charactered Matthew Hager, crouching above an overhead projector, surrounded by glowing Mason jars filled with swear words and memories. In a police office filled with oppressive filing cabinets and lamps, another projector beams Tristan’s face, piled under layers of indecipherable clues. Each piece we get of that fateful day’s complicated events brings Fiona and Guy’s deep loss into sharper focus. 

Jenni Becker’s lighting conjures ghostly trees and camera flashes, combining with Christa Giammattei’s haunting atmospheric sound and Jane Caradale’s authentic costuming to entrench the audience in Fiona’s pain, no matter where they sit. 

Loss is inexplicably large, and it defies explanation, but this production manages to capture the immensity of the emotion and the complexities of the circumstances that produce it. It’s a poignant reminder that, when something truly horrible happens, the way we cope is often messy and ill-advised—often “brown and sticky,” as Yee’s script repeats. It’s not the story we tell newspapers, social media feeds, or even, always, our friends and family. By bringing guilt and pain into focus, In a Word proves its own necessity.