For playwright Jennifer Haley, the concept of identity, much like the theater, is a construct of both deeply personal and communal elements. Haley puts her theories of identity under the microscope in her new play Breadcrumbs, which makes its West Coast premiere in Ojai’s Theater 150 on July 9.
“The simple version is that it’s a story about a writer with Alzheimer’s,” offers Haley. “That gives you the very topmost level of what it’s about. If you look deeper, it’s about two individuals who are very lonely in their own ways and have gone about combating their sense of isolation in two extremely different manners. So what I think of as the story is these two women coming together and learning from each other how to make adjustments, and instead of heading for these extreme poles in dealing with their own lives, how to find middle ground and how to find true intimacy, or at least a sense of reconciliation with themselves.”
In a two-character play centered on the notion of finding common ground, the discrepancies between Haley’s people are staggering. At one end of the spectrum is the aging Alida (played by LA Drama Critics Circle winner Anne Gee Byrd). “Alida, the writer character, she’s reclusive. So in some ways, to battle her own loneliness, what she has done is not try to make any inroads with people ever, just to ensure that she’s never rejected. Since she is a writer, her whole connection to the world is through her work. She is sent fan mail, but she will totally deny that she keeps all of it”¦only she does.”
And then there’s Beth (played by Ojai choreographer Brook Masters), the troubled young woman who comes into Alida’s life as a caretaker, who is anything but solitary. “She’s like a puppy dog and she just flings herself into the world””different circumstances, jobs, and relationships””just frantic to combat her sense of isolation by always being with people and trying to create situations in which people will need her. So you have these two very different approaches, and yet the same problem for these women.”
When one hears words like “loneliness” and “Alzheimer’s” in the synopsis of a play, the foreboding sense of a night of heavy, somber drama sets in. Haley is quick to address those misgivings. “The tone of this piece is sort of this dark, but playful fairy tale. There’s also an element of mystery to it.” In fact, Haley has strewn these fairy tale elements throughout, starting with the title Breadcrumbs.
“A good metaphor for this piece is the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, and the image of going through the forest and dropping breadcrumbs and creating the path by which one can find a way out. It’s symbolic of one’s own story or journey. We’re looking at Alzheimer’s as the birds who come and get the breadcrumbs. Once you’re in the woods, if you can’t find your way back out or find your own sense of identity, then where are you and who are you?”
In terms of the mystery Haley’s characters must solve, it’s locked away in Alida’s memory. “Alida allows Beth into her home to help her because she is actually writing her autobiography with no intention of sharing it with anyone. I think she realizes somewhere subconsciously that she needs to reconstruct a very painful thing that happened in her past if she’s ever going to have a sense of moving on or freedom before her disease takes her over entirely. So as they’re working on the novel, we flash back, and Beth becomes Alida’s mother, and Alida plays herself at nine years of age and we discover their story.”
An elderly woman who regresses back to nine years old? That’s quite the task for a playwright to put on even the most seasoned of actresses. Then again, as Haley reminds us, this is the revered Anne Gee Byrd we’re talking about. “Anne Gee is absolutely perfect in the role of Alida. Alida’s extremely dry and extremely intelligent and also has a deep layer of humor to her, which she normally doesn’t reveal, because that would be make her personable, which she does not like to do. Anne Gee’s wonderful at capturing all that kind of fierceness and dryness. You’re sort of afraid of her. Also, she has to revert back and play a nine-year-old version of herself. One of the things that [director] Jessica Kubzansky has been working on with them is the fact that Anne Gee is actually several inches taller than her fellow actress, yet at one point she needs to play her child. The amazing thing about Anne Gee is how incredibly limber she is. She jumps on things and curls her knees up to her chest and really is able to get into the physicality of a young child, which is amazing. Jessica and I have been totally blown away by that.”
When asked about where the inspiration to include Alzheimer’s came from, the Texas-reared and LA-based Haley explains that she has no direct connection to anyone with Alzheimer’s. But she adds, “There’s just something especially poignant about the idea of a writer losing words, particularly this character who doesn’t have any family or close relationships. She lives alone and her writing is the only way that she relates to the outside world. So what happens when she finds out that it’s all going away? Alzheimer’s is the element that is forcing Alida to change her life and make some discoveries and at the same time it’s the thing holding her back from it. So in that sense, it’s a tool of the play, but this isÂ certainly not a play that’s meant to educate people about Alzheimer’s. The word “˜Alzheimer’s’ is never actually mentioned. We mention it in the marketing so that audiences come in knowing that basic part of the story.”
With a slightly mischievous tone, Haley admits that her research on the symptoms of the disease led her to some slightly diabolical twists in her characters. Alida first meets Beth at the clinic where Beth is administering the detection tests. So Beth takes on the role of expert about the disease for both Alida and the audience, spitting out factoids here and there about symptoms and progression. “Beth will say things like “˜Paranoia is natural.’ That’s a big thing about Alzheimer’s patients — they get very paranoid. So we’ll see Alida behaving in a very paranoid way. The thing about Beth is that she is a rather untrustworthy character. So one of the games I play with the audience, as the playwright, is having them question “˜Is Alida being paranoid, or has Beth just lied to her?” There is a point where we find out pretty early on that Beth is very capable of lying and twisting circumstances to make them suitable for her. So for Alida, this poor Alzheimer’s patient, who is already kind of natively distrustful of anyone, this factoid about paranoia is something that I use as a tool to create tension and drama within the play.”
The fact that Beth is “distrustful,” however, is not meant to vilify her, Haley quickly adds. “One thing I always hope to bring to my characters is a sense of compassion, because I get all of these things that go on with people and I empathize with how they think and why they sometimes behave in extreme ways. I went through several drafts before I finally got a grasp on the Beth character. I don’t know why, but it was really difficult for me to wrap my head around her and it wasn’t until well into the writing process that it finally hit me — Beth has the same problem that Alida has, she just goes about solving it very differently. The fun part of this play is watching these characters butt heads while they’re really out to solve the same problem.”
The premiere of Breadcrumbs occurred a year ago at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia. In LA, Haley is better known for her Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, in which parents find their teenagers addicted to an online video horror game that’s set in a neighborhood that appears to be modeled on their own suburb. It has received 11 productions since its 2008 premiere at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, including a staging at LA’s Sacred Fools Theatre last year.
As far as Haley’s concerned, the ultimate source of drama for all of her work tends to hinge on the notion of the discrepancy between private and social identity. “I’m very interested in identity, in terms of how we present ourselves versus what’s really going on inside of us. In fact, several of my plays are about virtual identity” (including her The Nether, which is being given a public workshop this week at the O’Neill Center’s National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn.)
“I think even with people who are extremely extroverted, there is this kind of discrepancy between your true self and what you present to the world. Beth is very free about the fact that she goes to a therapist. And Alida tells her “˜Oh, well you’re just using someone else to see yourself.’ They open up these conversations of “˜How do we know ourselves?’ Do we know ourselves in a vacuum or do we know ourselves from the reflections of other people? Once I got really specific in the manner in which these characters go about discovering their identity, it made all of these scenes about questioning this concept of identity fall together.”
Much like her two characters, Haley’s methodology for discovering one’s identity seems to rest on the common ground between the two approaches, and is neither developed at the beginning or the end of the journey, but along the way.
“Ultimately, I’d like audiences to come away with the idea that nothing is really lost when one suffers from dementia or when we eventually die. There’s an aspect of identity that we completely construct through stories of our lives, and that tends to fall away. But there’s another aspect that is completely pure and unchangeable, and that’s what we share with other people, and at the same time it is something that is wholly unto ourselves and something that we can find out more about by being with other people and being open to other people. That’s how we discover how precious we are as individuals.”
**All production photography by Jeremy Pivnick
Breadcrumbs, July 9-24, Fri, 8 pm; Sat, 2 pm and 8 pm; and Sun, 2 pm. No matinee on July 9. Two preview performances take place on Thursday, July 7 and Friday, July 8 at 8 pm. Theater 150 is located at 316 E. Matilija Street, Ojai. Tickets range from $22-$29, except opening night which is $50 and includes a reception with the actors. Previews are $15.Â For more information and to purchase tickets, call 805-646-4300 or go to www.theater150.org.