There are things in life that are hard to explain merely with words. Sometimes, the best way to transcend obstacles is simply to revel in the ineffable intricacy of emotions we are dealt with. What is left when one not only runs out of memories, but the words to describe them? Such are the trials and tribulations of young, twenty-something etymologist Icarus (Adrian Burke) and beautiful French ex-pat Esme (Charlotte Arnoux), the young couple at the center of Word Play, Ran Xia’s latest effort.
Just as the title suggests, words are all over this play. Its own inception is even inspired by a post on pop culture aggregate Buzzfeed, which featured a list of “untranslatable” foreign words, some of which eventually working their way into the fabric of the play, with each word prompting each of the eleven scenes. Indeed, even as the audience enters the small black-box space of The Theatre Building’s Jewel Box Theater, they are inundated with words: on the floor, on the walls, and even literally hung on the line — a clothesline, that is.
And hang on the line, they do.
Under director Florence Le Bas, we follow the young couple along as their story traverses time and space, across varying states and planes — both literally and figuratively. Icarus (or Iggy, as he prefers to be called) is diagnosed with a debilitating disease (a brain tumor, it is implied), which starts to affect his memory. Upon news that it may not be much longer until the disease fully takes hold of his mental faculties, Iggy scrambles to commit his favorite words to memory, writing them down everywhere in a frenetic, Memento-like fashion. Similarly, he urges Esmé (Essie, he calls her) to go away with him on a road trip across the country, declaring that he wants to live life while he still can.
This newfound urgency is reflected as scenes from their relationship jump-cut between lived-in and dreamt-up moments. We see them go through phases as a couple, from awkward, heart-thumping beginning to its inevitable, heartbreaking end. Iggy’s own decaying memory begins parallels these phases, with elements of his personality changing from one to the other as his mind further riddles with disease. “This is how memories fade,” Icarus says to Esmé, “Perfectly constructed sentences, reduced to scattered words and eventually, meaningless combinations of letters. Promise me one thing, Essie. Don’t ever let me forget you.”
But forget her, he does. As his illness worsens, the scenes visibly become shorter and shorter, and by the time they get to see that last sunset, his memory of Esmé all but fades away, descending rapidly into darkness. The fourth full-length production in an ever-growing output of thought-provoking pieces over the last year and a half, Word Play sees Ms. Xia at perhaps her most heartfelt and earnest to date. Just as her Icarus decorates his life with words, much of the author’s signatory imprint can be found within Word Play: scenes of roadside Americana; characters out-of-time, with poetic dialogue between them overlapping one another; and — of course — memory. At its core, it is an exploration into the immediacy of language, the slow fade of memory and the mysteries of human connection. It is a beautiful piece of theater, and one certainly deserving of a wider audience.