by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Susan Sargeant
Stage Manager – Bobby Selah
Scenic Design – Nick Brethauer
Lighting Design – Jason Foster
Sound Design – Lowell Sargeant
Costume Design – Barbara C. Cox
Alida - Stephanie Dunnam
Beth - Catherine D. DuBord
Reviewed Performance: 10/8/2016
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
What are the breadcrumbs of our lives? The memory of myriad moments we experience is the sum total of who we are as people. What we are is a result of what we believe, think and do, but what happens when those moments disappear? Does our personhood change too?
The Nether at Stage West earlier this year was impressive in its intricate weaving of a story about children being used by people living in virtual worlds with real world consequences. Author Jennifer Haley questioned whether crime in a virtual world is really a crime. The story brought to DFW Haley’s ability to deal with complex human social interactions.
WingSpan Theatre Co has brought another Haley story to Dallas with their production of Breadcrumbs. By the waters of White Rock Lake in the Bath House Cultural Center, this play takes on a more realistic and equally devastating subject about dementia and its complicated relationships with everyone in a sufferer’s social circle.
Alida, a prominent author, struggles with memory, the breadcrumbs she left throughout her life, and with a relationship with Beth, her caregiver. That relationship is often difficult, but more challenging as Beth is also flawed and disturbed about her own life, perhaps having difficulty laying her own breadcrumbs.
Haley’s play calls for challenging performances with difficult emotional and physical conditions. Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects people differently, so there’s no right way to play those effects. Director Susan Sargeant began by casting two strong actors who could tell this story in a way that was both entertaining and believable. Her production choices created an environment that would allow us to concentrate on themes of the story without distractions that happen in real caregiver situations.
Set Design by Nick Brethauer created a forest atmosphere allowing the fairy tale story to shift back and forth between time periods and locations in Alida’s life. It was impressionistic with several stylized paper/wooden trees and stumps lining sides of the stage and a full-width rear-wall scrim, which allowed a variety of color washes and projections to set a background. A single round table with two chairs sat center stage and these chairs became another way to define time periods and locations. The off-green colors of trees created a sense of mystery with subtle blues and purples in a pastel palette.
Jason Foster added a range of dim lighting plots in green, blue, orange and purple highlights that either reinforced forest atmospheres or suggested different locations, time periods or mental states. Several light effects created a lightning storm and a Fall with falling leaves. Add to this an understated Sound Design by Lowell Sargeant that included some sound effects and a few moments of musical interlude and we saw a great setting for this story. Sargeant’s minimalist projections also played on the scrim amidst various lighting washes to help identify setting.
Costumes designed by Barbara C. Cox contributed practical, current-day clothing with basic pants and shirt for Beth and a print caftan for Alida, but they could also vary these with a scarf or shawl or a few special pieces, such as a nurse’s jacket. One special costume involved a witches cloak, hat and mask.
Stephanie Dunnam’s Alida is an older, successful author who shows signs of memory loss. A woman who apparently always lived alone, she uses post-it notes to remember moments and important words and thoughts. Dressed in a shin-length, loose-fitting, brown print caftan, she looked stressed from the beginning as she tried and often failed to capture those moments she was sure she should remember easily. Dunnam showed stress physically and vocally, especially with continual angry retorts to people who visited her, and proceeded to more extreme outbursts and breakdowns. With her first meeting with Beth, who would eventually become her personal caretaker, Alida was distrustful and hurtful to all. Dunnam showed progressive physical deterioration in subtle ways, avoiding grotesque versions of physical ailments that sometimes happens in theater. Anyone who cares for someone in this condition often sees an on-going physical malady with the passage of time. Dunnam nailed that look.
The ravages of dementia can create great fear, confusion and anger as the body stops doing what the brain wants to do. The loss of memorable moments become road signs to things getting worse, yet there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Each person responds to this in different ways and anger is one of the most common symptoms, so Dunnam’s angry expressions out of Alida’s inner turmoil is believable. Good storytelling, however, needs an arc with visible polarity and dynamic intensity. It seemed Dunnam started out at a high anger level and didn’t have room to expand, so the intensity was high from the beginning. But then, how can one say that was wrong. It’s a realistic outcome of many dementia patients. Despite that, Dunnam showed the inner conflict of someone losing their memory with her version of how she might react to that slowly unfolding reality, and it was a fantastic performance.
Beth was played by Catherine D. DuBord. This young woman played multiple roles in Alida’s story, first as an examining nurse aide who gives Alida her initial memory tests, and then as the aide being impressed with Alida’s success, and then as an out-of-work caretaker who worms her way into living with Alida to help, actually more like push, her write her life story before it’s too late. There is also a continuing flashback storyline that shows Alida as a young girl and DuBord as her mother. DuBord was also a witch, looking a bit like a hunched over commedia character, which revealed fears Alida imagined in all who would try to help her.
Beth provides the little bit of comedic relief this story has and DuBord did that well, whether showing exasperation with Alida’s confusion and memory lapses or making periodic quips about difficult situations from the mind of the caretaker. But where DuBord excelled was truthfully playing the struggle caretakers have, whether or not they are related to the patient. Her emotional roller-coaster provided the reality of how this can be hopeful and positive at one moment, with moments of joy and fulfillment, and suddenly frustrating and heartbreaking the next. DuBord made her character a girl with her own life struggles who approached Alida first as a patient, then an idol, and eventually a friend. Along the way, love and tenderness was discovered as Beth understood Alida’s triumphs amidst the tragedy.
Breadcrumbs is really two stories as Alida’s descent into dementia is woven together with memories of her difficult childhood. This happened with frequent shifts between time in Alida’s cottage, noted by a forest projection and lighting plot, and flashbacks to her childhood in several locations, with their projections and color patterns. At one moment, Dunnam was Alida, the elder woman, and the next she was Alida, the young child interacting with her mother. With each shift, DuBord changed from Beth to Alida’s deeply flawed, but loving mother. In Dunnam, we saw a physical and vocal change between woman and child. With DuBord, the physical change was minimal, but she showed a different demeanor and vocal pattern as mother, doting on her child, brushing her long, curly hair, and shaping Alida’s dreams of the future. These scene changes happened from one line to the next, almost instantaneously. It was a remarkable by both actors to shift back and forth so adeptly. Yet, it often seemed too quick, as I found myself rushed to move on to a new scene before I could process the last. It did keep the show moving with a lot of energy. That’s important too.
Breadcrumbs is a story about all of us. Some of us will experience some form of dementia in time and nearly all of us will deal with someone who is. Haley suggests that dementia is found in the moments we lose, trying to recapture the breadcrumbs we’ve thrown down along our journey, only to find they’ve been picked up by unseen thieves. This calls us to be understanding and compassionate to those who suffer and those who care for them.
WingSpan has done a great service to bring Breadcrumbs to our area. The production and acting is top-notch. This is a story everyone should find a way to see.
WingSpan Theatre Co
The Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive, Dallas, TX 75218
Runs through October 22nd.
Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm, with matinees on Saturday at 2:00pm. Ticket prices for Saturday evening shows are $25.00, and all other shows are $20.00. There is a $2 discount for students, seniors (age 65 and better), groups, and KERA and Stage members. For information and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.wingspantheatre.com or call the box office at 214-675-6573.