“What’s the Word For” at Illusion Theater

Melissa Hart and Michael Paul Levin in “What’s the Word For”

Illusion Theater has renewed their collaborative relationship with local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher in a commissioned work that also honors producing directors Michael Robins (who directs this production) and Bonnie Morris for their commitment to developing and producing new plays. The relationship and friendship between playwright and theater, in this case, has been a long and beneficial one for these artists and for Twin Cities theater generally.

In What’s the Word For, Hatcher takes on what it means to be a caretaker, a role in real life, as on this stage, brimming with challenges, requiring good humor and offering its peculiar blessings. But what if their routine, which has worked so well for so long, is upset? It’s not by something extraordinary, but by something so ordinary that we feel the ultimate conclusion from the first scene.

Janet Caleodis, played by Broadway veteran Melissa Hart, is a retired nurse caring for a middle-aged man, Hayden Harris, who is brain injured. Hayden, played by Michael Paul Levin, was a professor of film before a car accident, we eventually learn, left him incapable of making a decision, much less carrying it out. He is a storehouse of knowledge still, and he can be helpful to her, making her breakfast and getting the paper, and he nails every crossword question, which he also explains with textbook accuracy. Theirs is a mutually agreeable arrangement, but Janet’s age and health are forcing her to bring it to an end.

Hayden’s accident serves to turn the tables on the elderly-as-dependent theme. It also sets up some very entertaining dialog fed by the premise that Hayden needs constant and excruciatingly literal directions to accomplish the simplest task. “We have to be very specific, or the simplest things don’t work,” Janet says.

Hart and Levin show perfect timing in these interchanges. In fact, the scenes that sparkle are precisely when we get to watch them live out their mostly predictable routine. But because the play requires that the routine be upset, our insight into their relationship is interrupted by one panic-inducing fact: Hayden is late coming home. Janet is now required to carry the story on her own. We are introduced to several important characters in their lives who—through her —fill in the back story, but this is all over the phone.

I think Hatcher has stretched the two-character story to the limit, in this case. Hart masterfully carries on, but why make her work that hard? The other characters sound interesting enough; someone could have made an appearance at least, which I think would have given the story added richness and flavor, and probably would have strengthened even more our own investment in keeping these two together. There appears to be antagonists in human form, so let’s have a look.

There is one small detail that is easily fixed. Janet says repeatedly that she is 72 and old. I don’t know anyone as old as she is at 72. I would find this vastly more believable if she was 82.

I’m not sure that the Hayden’s injuries are medically accurate, but that hardly matters, in this case. I know that brain injuries often cause enormous emotional changes. Levin gives us a real human being, frustratingly dependent but pleasantly cooperative. We know there’s more to him, which Levin wonderfully contains inside this complex character.

The play is a nice twist on the caretaking theme, balancing clever, funny and heartwarming with twangs of real pain. There’s much truth in what the play says. Whether you know first-hand what it means to be a caretaker or not, it’s a production worth seeking out, but do it soon. It runs through April 21st.


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