‘Webster’s Bitch’ plays with words and their ever-changing meanings at Playhouse on Park

When Jacqueline Bircher had questions about the power of words — how they can enlighten, enrage, torment and amuse — she went not just to the dictionary but to the place where dictionaries are made.

Her new play, “Webster’s Bitch,” is premiering at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park May 31 through June 18. In the play, it comes to the attention of staffers at a dictionary office that their editor-in-chief has called a colleague the B-word. There is evidence of the offense on social media. The office workers discuss the issue as only lexicographers can. They discuss the power that words have to distress people and list other, similarly offensive words.

They also argue about how some words are forbidden and why. One of them declares “Language isn’t fair. It’s a made-up human puzzle that is constantly changing. This is the whole reason our jobs even exist, so someone can take an active role in debating the intricacies of reclaimed slurs and ensuring that our current definitions are, in fact, current.” The dialogue veers from scholarly to excitable.

“I wrote this play to pose more questions than answers,” Bircher said. She wanted to dramatize how vital and lively words (and their definitions) can be.

“I never worked at a dictionary, unfortunately, but I was always interested in words,” the playwright said. She had heard Kory Stamper, the author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” on a podcast and realized that “Dictionaries are so different from what I have always imagined them to be. It’s not stuffy what happens in those offices. It’s anthropological, socioeconomical. It’s about language as it changes in real-time. It’s unexpected. We wouldn’t think we’d be talking about slurs and hate speech at the office like that.”

“Webster’s Bitch” is set in an office building in Stamford. There really is no major dictionary publisher in Stamford. Bircher’s fictional company evokes Merriam-Webster, which is based in Springfield, Massachusetts. “The dictionary is my play is a generic stand-in for Webster’s,” she said. What she wanted to convey was how passionate lexicographers can be, and how lively their conversation gets.

The play began as a one-act around five years ago. It had some success in that form and was scheduled for development into a longer play but that process was complicated by the COVID pandemic. Bircher hasn’t updated the script to reflect such post-COVID realities as working at home or reorganizing office space or wearing masks. “It’s generally meant to take place at a time in the near past,” she said, “not any particular year or time. It’s a place where COVID doesn’t exist.”

Playhouse on Park is hosting the world premiere of the full-length version of “Webster’s Bitch.” The theater held a staged reading of the script last year, which encouraged them to go ahead with a full production. Some of the cast and creative team were involved with the reading. Director Vanessa Morosco directed the one-act as well as the playhouse reading. “It’s amazing to see this come full circle,” Bircher said.

The Playhouse on Park production stars Isabel Monk Cade, who appeared in the one-act version of the play when it was at the Vineyard Theatre in New York as part of the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival in 2019. Also in the cast are Hanjie Chow, Peter Simon Hilton, Mia Wurgaft and Veanne Cox. Cox, who also took part in the “Webster’s Bitch” reading, co-starred in the impressive COVID-themed virtual adaptation of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” and “Elyot & Amanda: All Alone,” which the playhouse aired in 2021.

Bircher has stayed involved with the production, visiting West Hartford several times from New York City. She will be there for talkbacks following the Sunday matinees throughout the run.

Turning a one-act into a full-length is “one of my favorite things to do,” the playwright said. “It becomes much more complicated.”

Having to revise the play at a time when readings and rehearsals were more likely to be held over Zoom than on a stage had its difficulties. “The trickiest thing to work out was the rhythm and the comedy. I’m lucky because it has already been a short play,” Bircher said. She’s done very few rewrites at the playhouse.

The new version already has a future. It won the Woodward/Newman Award presented by the Constellation Stage company in Bloomington, Indiana and will get a full production there in 2024.

“Webster’s Bitch” runs May 31 through June 18 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays at 2 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. $25-$42.50. playhouseonpark.org.

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