What's the Word For at Illusion Theater

A deceptively simple play with no easy answers: Michael Paul Levin and Melissa Hart
Lauren B. Photography

Jeffrey Hatcher's spare new play is all about subtle gestures, off-screen sound effects, and things unsaid. It's about the frustration of locked doors and the fear of a ringing telephone or an alarm clock that isn't turned off.

At its heart, What's the Word For is a look at a most unusual couple — two people brought together by a job that has turned into a kind of family, and where the fear of change may overwhelm the best decision for the two.

The two-character play follows middle-aged Hayden (Michael Paul Levin) and seventyish Mrs. Caleodis (Melissa Hart). It's clear that all is not right with Hayden, who constantly needs to be told what to do and thrives on precise instructions. He knows all the details of every classic film broadcast on TV but can't remember the titles. He can instantly work out any crossword puzzle clue but can't read them himself.

We quickly pick up on what's happening. A decade and a half earlier, Hayden suffered a catastrophic head injury, transforming the film studies professor into a shell of his former self. We learn that Caleodis is a nurse who has taken care of the man for most of that time, learning how to deal with all his quirks and keeping the man safe from the outside world. Caleodis is getting older, has suffered several strokes, and plans to move into assisted living. That means Hayden needs to move on as well, though the thought of it frightens him to his core.

Hatcher builds up the play like a crossword puzzle, giving us clues along the way to fill in the pieces of the story, going both forward and into the past. The play is at its best when we are completely in Hayden's world, feeling his confusion at any twist in his normal routine. More of that — putting us in Hayden's shoes — would have served the play well, as it would have built up more empathy for Hayden.

Levin has a tough task here, not just playing a character with a severely limited range of emotions but also playing someone who is clearly difficult to live with as he is now. (A flashback shows us he wasn't a bundle of joy in the past, coming off as a pretentious, tough teacher not afraid to belittle his students — or sleep around on his wife.) He pulls this off with aplomb, using vocal pace to make up for the lost inflection of his voice. Levin plays the beneath-the-surface anger extremely well, giving us a clear view of the confused and angry man trapped with a mind that won't let him express himself.

Hart's performance is equally measured. Her character knows how to exist with Hayden, building their lives around the safe places in his routine. It's a job that has turned into a way of life, and Hart shows the tough affection her character has for her long-term client. For Hart, the signature moments come midway through. Hayden has gone out for a visit to a group home that may be his new residence. He's late, which drives Hart's character into a mixture of panic and steely resolve as she tries to spin several plates at once, using the telephone (she's not mobile enough to look outside on her own) to track him down and staving off a social worker. In between the calls, Hart lets us see the growing panic and heartbreak of her character.

Hatcher, along with director Michael Robins, brings that feeling of panic to frightening life. Considering how simple What's the Word For is on the surface — two characters caught in a personal, domestic drama — a lot is boiling beneath the action that doesn't offer any easy answers. As the play folds back on itself near the end, the final crossword clues are given, but the solution certainly isn't clear.

What's the Word For | A nurse and her longtime patient face wrenching decisions in a spare and subtle new play

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