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in a word

in a word

By Lauren Yee

Echo Theatre

Directed by Eric Berg
Stage Manager – Haley Shipley
Costume Design – Ariel Kregal
Scenic Design – Clare DeVries
Props Design – Lyynn Mauldin & Rebekka Koepke
Lighting Design – Robert G. McVay
Sound Design – Noah James Heller
Magic Consultant/Designer – Trigg Watson
Magic Consultant/Coach – Giancarlo Bernini
Fight Choreographer – Jeff Colangelo

Jennifer Engler – Fiona
Jared Culpepper – Guy
Thomas Magee – Tristan/Other characters

Reviewed Performance: 3/18/2022

Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

My child is missing!

That may be the most horrific statement in a parent’s life. It’s hard to imagine how it wouldn’t destroy about everything you hold dear. Yet it happens and there’s no way to understand what it’s like if you haven’t gone through it. The ever-present question of what happened is devastating. There’s no closure, no end to the what-ifs, and no way to let it go. That leads to a bleak view of the world.

It’s even harder to imagine this could be the subject of humor. Yet, Lauren Yee did that in her play, in a word (lower case intentional), playing at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake by Echo Theatre. This psychologically damaging event is tense to imagine, but it’s deftly managed with gentle humor in this story of Fiona, a grieving mom who lost her young son and must deal with her own imagination. It’s a study in how people grieve differently in ways that can destroy families.

Lauren Yee is a Rockstar in the contemporary American playwriting business. Her award-winning plays create compelling stories using the smallest of daily cultural situations, things most would simply pass off as unimportant. Yet her stories plumb deep psychologies of characters for whom those situations are too big to ignore.

The Bathhouse Cultural Center is a unique theater venue. Its history as a boathouse prior to 1952 made it great for watersports, but not so much for theater production. Yet Dallas updated it for culture, arts, and performance, and you can create great theatrical artistry there. Echo Theater’s production team did that with a modern American living room. With a simple couch, side table, paintings on the wall, brick fireplace with shelves, Claire DeVries’ design looked familiar. But this stage had a few magic tricks with a shadow wall, sliding room structures, and a French door/window view to a backyard. Lighting designed by Robert G. McVay provided colors that enhanced this dark theme, along with flash effects, a shadow scrim, and curtain effects. There were lots of little props in this living room, including decorations on the fireplace shelves, pieces of paper, and storage boxes with personal effects. Lynn Mauldin & Rebekka Koepke teamed to get all these pieces into actors’ hands, and they were important. Word signs and sweaters were big in this story. A subtle soundtrack and numerous sound effects designed by Noah James Heller were mostly indistinguishable but created a mood of mysterious curiosity. Costumes for some were current-day clothing in the American household. But Costume Designer Ariel Kregal also created numerous costumes for one actor who played eight characters with quick changes, including some while on-stage. This was integrated into regular stage business, so we learned to expect it, but her design choices made that seamless.

A play like in a word about tragic consequences must be carefully presented to allow the themes and content to land for an audience, who frankly wants to be entertained, not reminded of the tragedy. That takes a director who’s sensitive to the interplay between tragedy and comedy. Eric Berg’s directorial vision of this story and his handling of the undercurrents of humor in the face of tragic circumstances allowed the cast to latch on to a theme with many layers. It helped to have Lauren Yee’s wordplays to work with, but Berg brought all the elements together, to keep changes flowing quickly. He made blocking choices and scene change moves that never stopped in the 90-minute performance. He worked with a cast that clicked and enabled their energy to stay high despite the subject matter.

Fiona feels bleak. Her world has been upended and she isn’t coping well. Who could? The story unfolds across a single day but jumps back and forth over several years which could be defined as hell on Earth. Jennifer Engler was more than capable to handle this character’s pain, but she dug deeper for this. When we first saw Fiona, Engler played an amorphous funk, with scattered focus and a constant search for insight. Some might call it depression. But as the story unfolded, there were numerous flashbacks and memory jumps to alternate emotions but returning to that bleak image of Fiona’s life. As the search took her through more intensive grief through sadness, while still jumping back and forth to previous memories, Engler provided a lesson in playing intense emotions on-stage. In the end, she took Fiona to the deepest level of despair. It was powerful work.

Guy is Fiona’s husband. Played by Jared Culpepper, Guy follows a typical man’s route through grief, inwardly questioning, outwardly projecting self-control. As Guy questions Fiona about her confusing behaviors, conflict rages. Culpepper provided this stereotype so Guy would be a counterpoint to Fiona. But Guy grieves also, about the loss of his wife. He is curious about the loss of his son but believes the facts he knows and ignores the unknowns, and so his grief is for what he’s losing now. Through Guy’s constant questioning of Fiona on her birthday, we drive through the storyline of Fiona and Tristan and slowly uncover the facts of Tristan’s disappearance. Culpepper took us through a range of attitudes and emotions that any father in this situation might experience.

Of course, Fiona and Guy are two sides of the same coin, two paths through grief. We saw both the pain of their declining relationship, even as we learned facts about Tristan. Engler and Culpepper showed us how this feels and why grief counseling is important. Their willingness and ability to explore the depths of this story is a lesson on how people must find their way through the mire.

The focus of in a word is Tristan. The seven-year-old disappears one day and there are no answers. His presence is felt and seen throughout the play in flashbacks, as he acts out Fiona’s memories. Tristan is a special needs child, ADHD by the text, but probably closer to autism spectrum disorder. Thomas Magee created Tristan in a credible portrayal of a child with this condition. Impulsivity, uncontrollable mimicry of adult behaviors, repetitive behaviors, OCD, physical mannerisms, an inability to look at others, all these showed a portrayal that comes from either a deep study of the character, a connection to someone with this kind of disorder, or a wild, but accurate, imagination. In any case, it’s nothing short of amazing.

That might be enough for the price of a ticket, but Magee intermixed his Tristan scenes with other characters, in fact, kidnapper, detective, school principal, Guy’s friend Andy, Guy’s client, school photographer, and police officer. Though they all had Magee’s face, they had different character types, language, and motivations and Magee slid between these types quickly and smoothly, sometimes instantly onstage in the midst of a scene. This was a magical piece of acting work!

Speaking of magic, we know theater is a magical experience. But this production had real magic, sometimes so subtle some might miss it, but at times blatantly obvious. I’m not going to describe those – you need to see it for yourself. But kudos to Magic Consultant/Designer Trigg Watson and Magic Consultant/Coach Giancarlo Bernini for enabling actors to pull those off seamlessly within the story. Magic supported a theme of disappearance, misdirection, and transformation and provides momentary relief from the intensity.

Finally, the Playbill listed Jeff Colangelo as a Fight Choreographer. I didn’t see any fights, but I did see a lot of arguments, so maybe his new role is Argument Coordinator to go along with many other talents.

It’s been said you can get more with honey than with a stick. Humor helps us get through our tragedies – Shakespeare taught us that. If you’re a parent, you likely imagine the self-torture Fiona endures and would never want to experience. But Yee’s comic wordplay, magical misdirection, and referrals to cultural knowledge shaped by Berg’s handling of tragedy and comedy made in a word an experience that helped us contemplate thoughts we all want to avoid. It’s these humorous moments and turns of a phrase we often use to get through difficult situations. Like Aristotle’s catharsis in Greek tragedy, we learn through seeing others’ pain. While the comedy is not hilarious – this is not a comedy – we learn that those little humorous moments in our lives are crucial to healing.

This is a great piece of art. It’s worth seeing in person. But if you miss the run through April 10, you can see it streamed through April 24. Check the website for details. Take your mate or your adult children. It’ll spark some deep conversations.

in a word
Echo Theatre
Bath House Cultural Center, White Rock Lake. 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, TX. 75218

Plays live through April 10
Streamed Recordings through April 10-24

Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

General Admission tickets are $20 per person for live performances.
Streaming performances are $20 per person. Check site for details.
Students and Seniors are always $10 for performances and streaming.

Note: This is for mature audiences for language and themes.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit or call Theatre Mania at 214-546-8736 or send email to