Breadcrumbs as Aids to Memory... at Manbites Dog
by Scott Ross
October 9, 2010, Durham, NC: There are few pleasures in a theatre-lover’s life more entrancing than the discovery of a new play that, or a new playwright who, engages mind and heart with equal aplomb. In the exquisite regional premiere of Jennifer Haley’s Breadcrumbs at Manbites Dog Theater, Triangle audiences have a perfect opportunity to encounter both.
A brief two-hander of exceptional grace and emotional power, Breadcrumbs is performed at MbD with passionate yet expertly modulated brio by Marcia Edmundson and Chaunesti Webb and has been directed with un-cloying tenderness and an unerring sense of pace and expressive atmosphere by Jeff Storer. In it, Jennifer Haley probes, with the delicacy of a surgeon and the elegiac lucidity of a true poet, the unforgiving past and the errant nature with which memory parses it. She does so, moreover, by employing — with perfectly formed irony and considerable empathy — the unrelenting spectre of senile dementia.
For Alida, an aging writer, loss of her words is tantamount to living death. For Beth, her sparring-partner, erstwhile caregiver, and initially unwelcome amanuensis, the older woman’s diagnosis precipitates a race run against an implacable, inexorable enemy: to uncover the truth and to separate it from the fictions with which Alida protects herself. While there can of course be no perfect resolution here between encroaching loss and the psychic anguish born both of repressing, and uncovering, painful memories, Haley’s luminously crafted play provides an annealing catharsis tinctured with rue that brings her antagonists, and her audience, to a plangent denouement in which comfort descends in a kind of benediction as vividly depicted as it is impermanent.
A “memory play” in every sense, Breadcrumbs moves backward and forward in time, a temporal structure that allows bits and pieces of truth to accrue in tantalizing, enigmatic glimpses. Haley’s conceit allows Alida to play herself at younger ages and Beth to embody Alida’s mother, in a narrative arc that not only reveals the hidden contours of the older woman’s experience but brings Beth, subtly and without the need for obviousness on the part of the playwright, to an understanding of the parallels between Alida’s past and her own, troubling choices.
In Haley’s sure hands, as in Storer’s, nothing is wasted. Take the Post-It Notes with which Alida begins the play and that carry through the action in surprising yet utterly logical ways: First, as — to use her repeated phrase — points of reference for the audience to work out. Second, as guides to the everyday, placed around Alida’s apartment by Beth as the older woman’s faculties worsen. Third, as notes for the completion of her story that also serve as paths to memory, to be retrieved before, as Alida notes stoically, “my brain turns brown.” And finally, as metaphors for the yellow leaves at which she once grasped and that, in the play’s affecting finale, rain gently down, Alida’s words and memories regained and at the same time, lost to time and infirmity. Alida’s own metaphors have a similar fecundity, as when she imagines herself as Gretel without a Hansel, swallowed up by “an infinite, indifferent darkness.” This is exceptionally rich dramaturgy, refracted through, and enhanced by, imagery of the simplest and yet highest order.
Marcia Edmundson has an exceptionally difficult obligation in Alida, a woman with almost no pleasant contours, and it is a tribute to the actor’s innate skill that we come to care for her and to see her as the product of a past over which she had no control. She is equally striking as the child who is mother to the woman, and as each new layer of emotive skin is both peeled back and completed, her at first unreasonable fury becomes heartbreakingly explicable. Chaunesti Webb is splendid as Beth and even more so as Alida’s mother, each woman growing more aware of herself and the painful decisions she has made (in Beth’s case) or is about to (in the mother’s.) Chaunesti is the poignant violin to Edmundson’s deep cello in this exquisite chamber duet.
Jeff Storer has directed with an extraordinary mix of delicacy and force in exactly the proper measure. When one reflects how easily this material could become lugubrious, not from any inherent flaw in the writing but from the temptation of a lesser talent to orchestrate it in a deathish fashion, Storer’s achievement is all the more remarkable. The director is aided in this as well by Kit Wienert’s delicate, evocative incidental music and by the strikingly effective lighting designs of Andrew Park.
A very special mention must be made of the indispensable contributions to this production of Derrick Ivey, its set and costume designer. I do not know whether the playwright specifies a scenic plan at all like the one displayed here, but Ivey’s fantastic environment limns her play beautifully, with its evocation of a frightful, initially inscrutable yet somehow invitingly enchanted wood, the stuff both of childish terrors and their attendant, unlimited possibility — that “infinite, indifferent darkness” between childish desire and adult reality, which strikes unreasoned fear of the dream even as it liberates the dreamer.
The sort of pleasure Breadcrumbs evinces is rare, in the theatre or anywhere else. Seize it.
Breadcrumbs continues at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster Street in Durham, through Oct. 23. See our calendar for details.