Some may be born to endless night, as William Blake once observed. Still, Alida, the prickly aging writer who's the central character in Jennifer Haley's play Breadcrumbs, seems a bit of an overachiever.
The flashback scenes that riddle Haley's largely joyless script not only reveal glimpses of her character's predictably unhappy childhood, destabilized by a mother who always seems in pursuit of unworthy men. They also disclose the precocious Alida's worldview, which, at a tender age, is already distinctly grim.
Or Grimm, as the case may be. After all, Alida's childhood version of the story of Gretel (sans Hansel) concludes with the breadcrumb-strewing waif being swallowed in "the infinite, indifferent darkness." After Alida solemnly intones the words, Mom repeats them as well, by way of needless underlining. Imagine a 10-year-old Joyce Carol Oates, with more than a little Katurian (from Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman) thrown in for seasoning, and you've got the idea.
At the outset of the play, this luckless, loveless scribe has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Since she conveniently has no support structure of friends, colleagues or family, the sour Alida will have to rely on a total stranger, a hospital worker named Beth, to help her complete her last story. In an equally improbable contrivance, that work will be the first in Alida's unimaginable oeuvre to be "actually true"—an autobiographical account of her earlier miseries that are relived here in flashbacks.
In her program notes, the playwright says that Alida and Beth are polar opposites. True: Beth is a woman too defined by others (a string of faithless boyfriends), while Alida seems a paranoiac who has gone to improbable lengths to define herself alone. Simply learning that a Wikipedia page is devoted to information on her work unhinges her at one point: "People don't have information!" she screams at Beth. Similar reactions, including an ascetic claim that she never found love "necessary," increasingly situate Alida's character within the realm of fiction, not realism.
In segueing between scenes set in the present, in which she's aged, and scenes set in the past, when she's an adolescent, the venerable Marcia Edmundson almost effortlessly displays a quality we wish we'd seen last week in Playground—an adult actor who knows how to believably play a child. Chaunesti Webb portrays an almost puppy-like Beth in scenes of the present, and Alida's loving—but unwise—mother in the past.
Derrick Ivey's scenic design superimposes Alida's apartment upon a wilderness of cross-sectioned tree trunks and branches extending from the floor through the false ceiling above. Not only is Ivey's set a shelter that offers no shelter, it's also a brilliant and eerie visual analogue for the forest of synapses depicted in medical photography. As Alida gets increasingly lost in the thickets onstage, we know the same thing is happening, physically, inside her brain.
Unfortunately, we buy the performances of Edmundson and Webb and Jeff Storer's direction a lot more than we ever do Haley's script. Though Alida's a writer, the act of writing itself remains conspicuously offstage throughout the work, showing up only in manuscripts already written and reluctantly being edited. As a result, the drama of an author slowly losing all of her words remains relatively unexplored—except when Haley ham-handedly underlines Alida's inability to remember suddenly portentous words like memory and writer.
When a character like Alida remains this unsympathetic, those fateful last words of explanation aren't enough to get us to invest as much as the playwright wants or needs. While there are moving, poetic moments in Haley's script, there ultimately aren't enough of them to convince in an urban fairy tale that remains too disenchanting.