Jessica Kubzansky is best known in these parts as a Shakespeare director, thanks to her superb Hamlet and innovative Winter’s Tale at Ojai’s Theater 150. But she has repeatedly proved at her home base, Pasadena’s Boston Court Theatre, that you don’t have to reach back 400 years to find works with poetic resonance. Such gems are being written right now.
Breadcrumbs is one of them. Jennifer Haley’s play, which Theater 150 is presenting through August 7, is a theatrically innovative, emotionally rich drama that touches some very deep chords. It not only tells a compelling story; it also conveys the importance of storytelling, the way it both gives meaning to our lives and constricts our range of possibilities.
This West Coast premiere begins with an aging woman writing common phrases on a pad of sticky notes–“stuffed animals,” “text messages”—and then dropping the small slips of paper behind her. The Hansel-and-Gretel allusion is deliberate: Alida (Ann Gee Byrd), a famous writer, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Metaphorically, she is heading into the woods, and hopes words will help her find her way home.
Beth (Brook Masters), an acquaintance who becomes Alida’s researcher and ultimately her caretaker, is in awe of the great author. But in most ways, the two women are opposites. Alida is focused, deliberate, determined; Beth is co-dependent, aimless, searching.
Reluctantly, the self-reliant Alida comes to confide in Beth, gradually revealing the painful story of her childhood—and, in the process, helping Beth navigate her own journey. Key moments are dramatized in scenes in which Byrd plays Alida at age 9, and Masters plays her flighty, desperately unhappy mother.
While the plot is satisfying, the 80-minute, one-act play works much of its magic on an almost subliminal level; it’s full of recurring evocative imagery. We gradually get a visceral sense of how we are shaped by the way we tell ourselves our own stories, and are left to ponder at what point we lose the ability to rewrite the plot.
Kubzansky’s direction is, as always, fluid and nuanced. Both actors fully inhabit their characters, and Susan Gratch’s set—devoid of color, but decorated with words and silhouettes of trees—is simply perfect.
It’s important to emphasize that Breadcrumbs is not a play about Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, it’s an empathetic exploration of existential questions we all are forced to face sooner or later. Haley, who lives in Los Angeles, is a writer to watch, and her work is beautifully realized in this memorable production.
Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Theater 150, 316 E. Matilija St. in Ojai. For information, call 646-4300 or visit theater150.com.