Another drama about Alzheimer’s disease? That’s an entirely reasonable reaction to news that Ojai’s Theatre 150 has chosen Jennifer Haley’s Breadcrumbs as its summer show.
The new play centers on an aging writer who finds her words are disappearing. The subject is both depressing and familiar, thanks to such heartbreaking films as Away From Her and Iris.
“One of my fears is that people may think, ‘I already know about this disease. I don’t want to hear any more about it,’” the Los Angeles-based playwright said in an interview. “But the play is much less about the physical facts of the disease, and much more about intimacy, vulnerability, and how we allow events in our lives to shape the way we deal with the world. I hope people leave the theater with a new ability to look at themselves—what they believe about themselves, what stories they tell about themselves, and what parts of those stories they might be able to let go of.”
If that notion of drama as self-reflection sounds Shakespearean, that’s entirely appropriate. Theater 150 has attracted considerable acclaim in recent years with its summer productions of Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale. While the professional company plans to return to the Bard a year from now, making its debut in the rebuilt Libbey Bowl, it has opted this year for Haley’s contemporary drama. Like the aforementioned Shakespeare masterpieces, Breadcrumbs will be directed by Jessica Kubzansky.
Breadcrumbs shifts back and forth between two key eras in the life of its central character, Alida (played by Anne Gee Byrd). One set of scenes finds her facing early-onset dementia, and attempting to write her memoirs with the assistance of an aide (Brook Masters). The other consists of scenes from her childhood, in which she learns dubious life lessons from her mother—a woman who defined herself by the often-unsuitable men she attracted.
The title is taken from a familiar fairy tale. “Hansel and Gretel go into the woods and drop breadcrumbs so they can find their way home, but the birds eat them,” Haley notes. “Metaphorically, this enters into the story, with the breadcrumbs being words. Alida goes into the forest, turns around, and finds her words are gone, so there’s no way of going back.”
Haley, who recently turned 40, notes that she’s “not a prodigy or anything.” But this does seem to be a pivotal year for her. She developed one play at the Sundance Theatre Lab this spring, and will work on another at the prestigious Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference later this summer.
Haley, who has also had considerable experience onstage as an actress, spent two critical years in graduate school at Brown University, studying with playwright Paula Vogel (whose How I Learned to Drive was produced last fall at UCSB).
Breadcrumbs, which grew out of her graduate-school studies, premiered last summer at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, “a beautiful little town about 45 minutes outside of D.C.,” she said. She has been rewriting it a bit in anticipation of this, its third production.
Haley’s current work-in-progress is a modern-day variation on the Orpheus myth, about a woman who spots her missing lover in a video game. It sounds fun—an adjective she, surprisingly, also applies to Breadcrumbs. “I think all good stories are universal,” she said. “That’s a theme of the play. It’s all in the telling.”
Breadcrumbs previews July 7 and 8 and runs July 9-24 at Theater 150 in Ojai. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For information, call 646-4300 or visit theater150.com.