Dallas — If you’ve never taken pen to paper considering a worst-case scenario of your own aging dementia, you well might be prompted to do so after seeing Breadcrumbs, Jennifer Haley’s wrenching play about a terrified writer beset by Alzheimer’s disease, and a scattered young caregiver who longs to help her.
WingSpan Theatre Company co-founder Susan Sargeant directs the regional premiere of Haley’s 2010 play, written two years before the playwright’s critically lauded The Nether, about the jarring impact of virtual reality technology on human relationships. Both plays dramatize the deep human need for narrative, for a fairytale, a fable, a theorem—anything to link the moments of our lives to some framework of meaning in which we recognize ourselves and others. We need a story.
Alida (Stephanie Dunnam), a reclusive writer of some note, furiously declares she cannot remember the “words, words, words” to write her memoir. She’s hanging on by a strained thread of hope and a double-pack of Sticky Notes when she appears in a local clinic for a diagnostic test.
Beth (Catherine D. DuBord), a nurse’s aid supplementing her part-time job as a barkeep, flummoxes the files and calls Alida the wrong name. Then Beth makes up a crazy story based on her own crippled personal life to test Alida’s short-term memory. Hardly a relationship made in heaven.
In fact, the journey the two women embark upon is through the metaphorical woods of the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel (Hansel is automatically crossed from the cast). Angry Alida grudgingly allows eager, easily seduced Beth to research words and places and to help her recall the breadcrumbs of her childhood memories before the voracious disease gobbles them all up.
This odd couple share a common quest as they travel through Nick Brethauer’s elegantly suggestive set design at the Bath House Cultural Center, of Grimm trees fore and aft, surrounding a simple desk in the middle of the stage. Both women look over their shoulders at a troubling past, and rely on one another to keep the story of their present lives viable, from moment to moment. Beth needs a place to crash when she once more leaves a cheating boyfriend. Alida needs a link to reality as her grip on day-to-day events becomes uncertain.
Dunnam’s Alida is a beautiful wreck. Her frazzled curls flair and her anguished face reflects her pain at losing her identity to an “infinite, indifferent darkness.” Her eyes grow wild and narrow when she fears the motives of her young fan and researcher. In the scenes recalling her vagabond childhood with a helplessly romantic mother, Dunnam’s face lights up briefly. She sits akimbo on the desk and asks fearless, smarty-pants questions that point to her future as a writer.
DuBord is a touchingly vulnerable Beth, at sea in the world of jobs and men, she latches onto Alida like a life raft, even though the aging novelist is a bitchy taskmaster in the throes of a diseased paranoia who rarely tosses her caretaker a crumb of kindness. In the memory sequences, DuBord steps exquisitely and feelingly into the role of Alida’s hapless mother, a starry-eyed woman drawn to men bound to hurt and desert her. DuBord, her jaw locked and her eyes tearing, finds a toughness somewhere in this flaky young woman that enables her to stand by the deteriorating woman she is determined to befriend.
Under Sargeant’s sharp and intuitive direction, we never lose track of where the characters are in time and space. When the 75-minute show is done, we have a keener insight into how seeming opposites attract, and how they illuminate each others’ paths into the woods of the past and the blank canvas of future.