by SOPHIE KERMAN
Despite its being a world premiere, the Illusion Theater’s latest production is strangely undersold. On its website and in press materials, What’s the Word For is presented as the story of inter-generational support between a middle-aged man and an older woman who somehow bond over crossword puzzles. This doesn’t necessarily come across as a play one would spend money to see; after all, you can watch middle-aged people do crossword puzzles for free at your next family reunion. What the show’s promotional materials neglect to mention, however, are the most salient details of the characters’ lives: that Hayden Harris, the middle-aged man, is actually the victim of a car accident, which has left him with severe cognitive handicaps. Mrs. Caleodis is not just some cute, doddering old lady; she is Harris’s full-time caregiver – and after three strokes, she has come to realize that she may need care herself.
Well, this makes things a whole lot more interesting. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (not only famous for his prolific theatrical writing, but also for screenplays including The Duchess) based many of the neurological symptoms in the play on the experience of a close friend’s father, and as the play unfolds, we can see the amount of research and attention to detail it must have taken to construct Harris’s ritualized world. One senses that every item in Mrs. Caleodis’s house, from the alarm clocks to the bowl of apples on the dining room table, was put there for a reason, and that Harris’s continued functioning depends largely on his day running according to its usual clockwork. Michael Paul Levin plays the role sympathetically, but without an ounce of pity or melodrama; while some cues – such as crossword puzzle clues – trigger sudden bursts of clarity, others – a complicated door lock, for example – send him into spasms of frustration.
Although one might expect that Harris’s cognitive abilities and limitations might be the center of the play, What’s the Word For is really all about Janet Caleodis (Melissa Hart). In order to have a man with Harris’s unique needs living under her roof for fourteen years, Caleodis has had to adapt her own life drastically. But after such a long period of time, she has clearly come to feel tenderly toward her patient. As Mrs. Caleodis decides whether or not to move into an assisted living facility, she must weigh her own needs against Harris’s desire for familiar routines and aversion to moving into a group home. This judgment is heavily influenced by her long-term relationship with Harris, despite his inability to thank her or express any kind of reciprocal attachment.
It is this decision that drives our interest in the play, not the kind of feel-good golden-years romance that the Illusion’s website leads us to expect. Through all of their struggles to keep their lives on the rails, Hart and Levin both play their roles with a restraint that makes clear all that is being left unsaid. Director Michael Robins handles the material with care and good-humor, making What’s the Word For feel like a labor of love in its script, production, and content. As we find out more about each character, we start to fill in our own mental crossword puzzles. Where is the intersection between self-care and obligation to others? What is the difference between a job and a vocation? What’s the word for a relationship that emerges, not through conversation, but through so many years of shared moments?
What’s the Word For by Jeffrey Hatcher. March 30-April 21, 2012 at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave., 8th Floor, Minneapolis. Tickets: $15-28. Box office: 612-339-4944 or www.illusiontheater.org.