THEATER REVIEW | “What’s the Word For” at Illusion Theater: Brain but a lack of heart

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This is a tough one. Because I really wanted to like What’s The Word For, the new Jeffrey Hatcher play at the Illusion Theater. Jeffrey Hatcher is a brilliant craftsman when it comes to playwriting, and there’s few people funnier than Hatcher writing today. He’s prolific as heck and he gets his work out there into the world. He’s not only an inspiring example for other writers of just how to get the job done, he’s also a very generous teacher of the craft. In fact, a writer friend of mine the morning of the same day I saw What’s The Word For mentioned that they were turning once again to reading Hatcher’s book The Art & Craft of Playwriting as a touchstone to get their own writing back on track. So I was rooting for What’s The Word For, because as a rule I root for Jeffrey Hatcher. But the friend who accompanied me to the performance was right: I was expecting too much of the play because I thought it was finished. My friend is of the opinion that the play isn’t quite done growing yet.

“We’ve had three accidents.”
“Five. We’ve had five. Three of them we talk about. Two of them we don’t.”

So where is the play right now? What’s The Word For is the story of a deeply dependent relationship at a crossroads. Because Hatcher never does what you expect him to, the scenario is the exact opposite of the usual “when is it time to put mom in a nursing home?” question. Here the woman in her 70s, Janet Caleodis (Melissa Hart), is the caregiver for a mentally disabled man in his mid-50s, Hayden Harris (Michael Paul Levin). At first blush, one might assume that Hayden is battling some strange form of autism. He is slavish to routine and the basic patterns of his day. Even the slightest deviation from the norm makes him supremely uncomfortable. Also, he takes the English language quite literally. If you say someone is going to “drop him off” somewhere, he’s momentarily bewildered, afraid someone is literally going to drop him.

Janet has the patience of Job in dealing with Hayden, which the best home health aids frequently exhibit when tending to their charges. The play is juggling two big mysteries: how did Hayden get this way and what happens now? Because things can’t continue as they are. Janet has had three strokes. Though she gets around pretty well for a lady with a cane, her home and caring for Hayden are no longer a double burden she can continue to bear. She plans to move into a retirement community within the month, and has been working diligently to make sure that Hayden is well situated before she makes the big move.

Hayden hates change. So it’s not surprising that he resists all efforts to get him to play along with his unseen social worker and start acclimating to the group home where they wish to settle him. But the clock is ticking, and something’s gotta give.

“Less than adorable under the skin.”
“Subcutaneous.”

As a stage on the path to its ultimate state, Illusion’s production of What’s The Word For is a solid step in the right direction. Director Michael Robins (also Illusion’s Executive Producing Director) has a knack for nurturing new work for the theater and getting plays up in front of audiences. That’s an enormous part of what Illusion does, and why we’re lucky they’re still chugging along over three decades into their mission. What’s The Word For was first developed in Illusion’s Fresh Ink series and now gets a full-fledged production. And you couldn’t ask for a better acting duo than Melissa Hart and Michael Paul Levin. Their talents are a perfect match for Hatcher’s script and their efforts on its behalf are nearly Herculean. The fact that the whole thing almost works is largely down to them.

There is a sequence where Hayden goes missing, and Melissa Hart as Janet pulls off an amazing feat of acting. Armed only with a phone, Hart sets off on a monologue lasting several minutes in which she calls person after person searching for Hayden, fending off repeated inquiries from the social worker while juggling her search calls which overlap one another. The phrase “tour de force” is overused, but I’m mighty tempted here because Hart constantly made me forget the facts staring me in the face. By her reactions and conversations with each caller, she created all the other characters so fully that I kept forgetting there wasn’t another person on the other end of the line. She wasn’t talking to anyone. She didn’t have acting partners feeding her cues. She was doing all of this completely on her own. Yet I kept getting suckered into believing she was actually having a two-sided conversation with each and every exasperating person in her search for Hayden. Hatcher crafted a great stretch of dialogue, but you need an actress of Hart’s caliber to really make a believer out of you. And at the same time each of these offstage characters were being created for us, we kept receiving more and more pieces of the puzzle of Hayden, and how his brain got knocked out of whack.

Though the more I learned about Hayden, the more I actively disliked him, I have to hand it to Michael Paul Levin. Levin executes Hayden’s limited emotional and mental vocabulary with extreme precision. It’s like taking on an accent that he never drops. Boxing yourself in mentally and emotionally like that, and yet still expressing your character, that’s a real challenge for an actor, as if you’re asking them to fight with both arms tied behind their back, and occasionally tying their legs together as well. Levin puts up a great fight. I’d argue he wins, just like Hart, because I believed his character. I didn’t like him, but I believed him. Even Hayden has his moments, though. Hayden takes comfort in the movies on the TV. The TV remote is his lifeline. When he gets upset, the volume goes up. Partway into the play when Janet is upset, Hayden quickly grabs the remote and places it in her hand. Audible “aawww’s” rippled through the audience. Hatcher and Levin know how to tug the heart strings.

“We don’t live forever.  People get old.  People get sick.”

The great cast is also backed by a stellar design team.  Of particular note are Kevin Springer’s sound design and Michael Wangen’s lighting design.  Springer makes the world surrounding this simple room before the audience very real and specific.  Every time the unseen door to the outside world opens and closes, we heard the sounds of traffic and life. Every time someone steps into the bathroom, the sounds of a morning routine of brushing, washing and flushing are precise and recognizable. Same thing holds true for the unseen kitchen, and the generous helping of movie clips from the unseen television. The light of the TV, the light of day turning into night and back again, the transition from present into the past where the pieces fall into place. All of this is illuminated literally and figuratively by Wangen’s lighting design. The play would be much flatter without Springer and Wangen backing it up. It’s a perfect example of what great design can and should do in support of a story.

“15 minutes is the same as 48 hours to him. It’s like dog years.”

But here’s where it all falls apart for me. Hatcher’s script is an intricately constructed little puzzle box. It’s a marvel of exposition that almost never feels like exposition. He gives the audience the benefit of the doubt and expects that they’ll be able to piece together all the clues that come at them sideways from wonky angles and create the picture of these two people and their situation. It’s an admirable construction. It’s also extremely funny despite (and sometimes because of) the subject matter. But right now it’s an outline. There’s a brain but no heart.

This is strange mostly because the play is almost daring me not to be moved. A woman of tremendous empathy whose body is rapidly letting her down. A man whose brain has failed him, struggling to survive in a world that refuses to slow down and explain itself to him. What kind of heartless bastard am I that these people don’t engage me?

“Does he drive? It took us six years to get him back into a car.”

Because, even after ninety minutes in their company, despite the best effort of all these production elements, I still don’t know these people. The puzzle may be focused on Hayden, but the story must be Janet’s. Why? Because Hayden’s personality has been compromised. He doesn’t fully encounter the world in which the audience lives. He doesn’t understand. Even if we were to burrow inside his mind and see the world the way he sees it, we could not reach a resolution to the conflict. He may be a wiz at Hatcher’s cleverly clued crosswords, but Hayden is essentially a child. He needs to be cared for almost as if he were a pet. He cannot function without another human being acting as a perpetual buffer. Janet is the one who must make all the choices for them.

“You didn’t tell me who she wasn’t.”

Yet we never know why Janet takes this burden as her own. Yes, at its most basic level, it’s a job. But she’s been at this for 14 years. Hayden is not her son. He was never her lover. She only encountered him in a professional capacity as a nurse after the accident which changed his life forever. She never knew him as anything else. Yet Hayden had a wife and a daughter (and yet another woman in his life besides), all of whom love him, all of whom have more vital connections to him than Janet does. So why does Janet choose to allow this man to not just become the center of her life but completely take over her life?  We never really know.

Janet has no life beyond Hayden. Yet she lived before he came along. She’s listed as a Mrs. in the program, which implies a husband at some point in her life. There’s a hint in her discussions on the phone that divorce may have been involved. There’s no mention of children that I recall. We get precious little detail of her. This is her home they’re living in, but we never get much mention of any non-Hayden memories she may have built there. 

“The one who won’t let you leave and the one you don’t want to lose.”
“Keeper.”

The flashbacks which happen late in the play are convenient from a structural standpoint, and quite revelatory for the audience, but the source for them can be neither Janet, nor Hayden. I want those sequences in the past to move me. But they are another example of the play’s structure drawing attention to itself, making me wonder from where this information is coming.

“Sometimes it’s better not to start at all.”

This is where the play shows the strain of being confined to only two actors. Logically, Hayden going to a group home and allowing Janet to finally put herself first for once and allow others to care for here for a change is the smart thing to do. Group homes are not snake pits. Social workers are not evil. The play is not saying they are. However, the only world we know in the audience, and the only world that Hayden knows, is this one room and these two people. There are no other actors about to enter the scene. There is no second location, or third or fourth, which will supplant this one. When these two leave this place, one way or the other, this world ends. It is the end of the world. The stakes are unnaturally high and, frankly, false.

“I don’t think the family thought he’d live this long.”

The play also does itself a disservice through its liberal use of sound clips from classic movies like Casablanca, All About Eve, Bride of Frankenstein, The Philadelphia Story, and others, even a full-on discussion of the thematic elements of Citizen Kane. I love these films, and it’s perfectly in keeping with one of the later revelations about Hayden’s character. But the constant use of this device frequently made me think, “Man, I wish I were watching Casablanca right now.” Also, the movies used don’t seem to have even a tangential correlation to the characters or their situation. Since movie preference isn’t much of a character trait, and there isn’t any thematic resonance going on, it’s strange that the play keeps going back to that well time and again.

“The answer is so simple once we know the answer.”

Finally, I’m wondering about the drive behind telling this particular story. The question of how we care for the most vulnerable among us—the aging, the ill, the functionally impaired—is a key measure of how compassionate our society is. Modern medicine has put a tremendous strain on that compassion. In the past, accidents and diseases served the purpose of thinning the herd. The weak simply didn’t survive. Life expectancy was much shorter. Honestly, 50 years ago, neither Janet nor Hayden would probably be here. The fact that they are, and that they need help, means society has to decide what to do with them, in terms of giving them viable options. Heady stuff. 

Currently, the play has Janet and Hayden boxed in so tightly that there seems to be no hope. The fact that the current construction of the play has just the two of them against the world stacks the deck pretty strongly against them. And because it’s just the two of them, no other options are physically manifested to give the audience any hope that things could be better or different. People deal with these issues all the time.  Sometimes well, sometimes badly, but many of them survive, somehow. Authors are certainly entitled to a bleak world view, but without any hope, what’s the point? I’m not lobbying for an unrealistic happy ending. If I understood the reasoning behind Janet’s sacrifice, that might be enough. As it is, I’m left wondering.

What’s The Word For is skillfully constructed, enormously funny and has two really fine performances. Its brain and its funny bone are in full effect. I just need a little more heart.


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